2011年5月30日 星期一

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

As the film opens, we see the hazy outlines of a baby amidst rumpled bedsheets and bed covers in a light blue  and white background. Gradually the camera pans out, revealing the face of a woman in bed. It's that of Natalie Portman, the winner of the Academy Award for best actress last year for her performance in Black Swan. Here, she plays the role of Emilia Greenleaf in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, adapted by the director Don Roos from a novel of the same name by Ayelet Waldman (2006).

In the next scene, we're shown Emilia going to a nursery school on a Wednesday afternoon to pick up a  "difficult" young kid William, (played by Charlie Tahan) who said he only wanted his dad but not her. There she was shunned by all the other mothers as the woman intruder who broke up what they thought was William's fairy tale upper middle class family. But she still tried to do her best to be "nice" to him. He appeared a precocious child and knew lots of stuff about various subjects which interested him. Whilst there, she was met by the maid of William's mother who gave very specific directions on the kind of medicine that William was to take for his cough and when and how, suggesting the antics of a "control freak", perhaps the cause of why her ex finding it impossible to continue living with her. Once they were home, he suggested that she sell on E-Bay all the stuffs belonging to Isabel, her baby daughter by her recently divorced and newly-wedded husband Jack.  This got on to her nerve and she freaked out, though she immediately apologised. She never really got over losing Isabel, who died of SIDs in her arms on the first day she brought her home from the maternity hospital . Emilia, a law graduate of Harvard law school whose divorced father was an eminent judge and former chairman of the New York Bar., was a junior partner of a New York law firm who fell in love with its senior partner, now her husband Jack (played by Scot Cohen). However, with time, William grew to like Emilia but Emilia never forgave her own father for deserting her own mother for a Russian dancer. To her, one may be polite and civil and tolerant and loving but there are certain limits over which one should never over-step.

As the film developed, we are shown how she had to cope with her guilt about losing her baby, her understandable hatred of her father and William's mother Carolyne Soule (played by Lisa Kudrow), a famous surgeon and an expert in insinuation who never forgave Emilia for taking away her ex-husband and who took every opportunity to poison William's mind against her and to insult her and how hard she tried to win over William or at least disarm his hostility towards her. The emotional strains of such difficult circumstances inevitably took its toll. After a particularly bad quarrel, she left Jack and William. At the end of the film she confessed to Jack that it was she who smothered her own baby. Jack immediately had the autopsy report re-examined by Carolyne's expert friend to see if it was consistent with artificial asphyxia and he confirmed that her baby indeed died of SIDs and there was no evidence at all that Emilia could have smothered her as she thought and in addition, gave all the technical forensic reasons for that conclusion. Upon hearing the results from Jack, she immediately went to see Carolyne, who despite her dislike of Emilia, reaffirmed her concurrence with her friend's professional judgement. The film ends with William not wanting to go to his mother's second wedding without Emilia and Emilia forgiving her dad and we are shown how she finally agreed to sell all the things she had bought for her deceased daughter which she never got the chance to use and how she reluctantly packed  up everything she had bought in anticipation of her baby daughter Isabel's  needs and then watching William play with a toy boat she bought for Isabel which she now gave him as a gift at Central Park  and how her mother got all flustered about going out on a "date" with her father: a typical Hollywood style good ending.

It was a story of the trials and tribulations of an obviously intelligent and sensitive woman whose life was ruined by the shadow of the death of her own daughter and the strains it caused in her relationship with her husband and his child of a former marriage. Natalie Portman's acting was as usual excellent. The film, produced in 2009, is scripted and directed by Don Roos and co-produced by him and Natalie Portman. Both the cinematography and the music are unremarkable. But it was a good way to spend an evening after the early termination of the Art HK 11 at 5 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m.

Mozart, Haydn and Finnish Novelties

Saturday evening at the City Hall was an absolutely marvellous experience. I heard two pieces of music I never heard before and got to know a wonderful new musician who both played and directed. The new pieces were Sibelius's Rakastava, Op. 14 and his Suite for Violin and String Orchestra, Op 117 and the new musician was Pekka Kuuisto, a Finnish violonist who won the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1995 and has since taken up an active role in promoting music to young people, being the Director of Finland's summer music festival "Our Festival" and set up "Our Orchestra" with composed of musicians who took part in the festival. 

Rakastava (a Finnish word meaning "lover"),  is a three movement suite for string originally written in 1893 by Sibelius (1865-1957), himself a concert class violinist, as his entry for a competition in setting to music the folk poetry of a Finnish poet Elias Lönnrot in the form of a male chorus but was later abandoned. After that he added a string accompaniment to it and it became the piece we have today. According to the Programme Notes, the first movement is supposed to be to be "an intense expression of first love with moments of rapt passion and passages of sublime tenderness". The second movement is one of the most beautiful string passages ever written by the composer whilst the third depicts the sorrows of a heart-breaking farewell. I understand that this piece has previously been done by the HKPO in 1996 under Yip Wing-Sie but I never heard that. The piece was wonderfully performed with both tenderness and verve.

We next had the very leisurely and light hearted Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A K210 ( in Allegro aperto, Adagio and Rondeau (Tempo di Menuetto), nicknamed TheTurkish (because of the imitative bow tapping  rhythm of the violin strings á la marche militaire Turque), written by Mozart (1756-1791) as the last of a series of 5 violin concertos he composed between 1773 and 1775 and set a sample for later composers like Mendelsohn, Brhams and Tchaikovsky. Playing the soloist and at the same time conducting the HKPO, he managed to give Mozart's music a bounciness which I believe Mozart would have loved. He appeared in a black shirt over which hung what appeared a loose long Indian style black soft silk shirt-like but pocketless jacket with a patterned white band at the lower hem and also upon the cuff of the sleeves which he would half roll up to elbow level during his rhythmic performance. One can see he played with obvious delight as he bobbed his casually disheveled chestnut-color hair up and down and from side to to side and tapped his left foot sometimes quite audibly in moments when he appeared lost in the music but otherwise according to the mood and rhythm of the music.  A most lively Mozart! The song of his violin is both bright and mature. I checked on his background from the Programme Notes and learned why. His was playing a borrowed Giovanni Baptista Guadalgnini violin of 1752 and is said to love to jazz like improvisation and to mix genres, including film and "movement" whatever that means and has played imprivisory electronic  music with Austrian multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger and the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and had also directed from the violin various Australian, Austrian, English, Scottish and Irish chamber orchestras. Early last year, he directed the Britten Sinfonia in a major tour of UK and Holland. I really love the final movement with it solemn marching rhythm constantly dialoguing with lone voice of the always frolicking violin solo. 

After the interval, we were regaled with another Mozart piece, his Divertimento in D K136 in Allegro, Andante and Presto. According to the Programme Notes, "the scoring for four-part ensemble means they are not true symphonies. Some authorities claim them to be Mozart's first ever string quartet". Whatever the truth may be, it was indeed a most enjoyable piece of music, enthusiastically played under infectious direction of Kuuisto. Its  main melody is endlessly repeated against the background of an insistently gay string rhythm. whilst its second is slightly slower and exudes his youthful graceful whilst the third gives full reign to Mozart's capacity of caprice.

We next had another Sibelius piece. It was a three-movement Suite for Violin and String Orchestra suggestively entitled Country Scenery, Evening in Spring and In the Summer. No one wanted to publish this work when it was first written 1929 and it was not re-discovered and performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä on 8th December, 1990! The work has a very relatively fast first movement and felt as if a young kid were hopping, swaying from side to side along  a country path in a dance-like movement , alternating with its strong and light sound and lesiurely melody. It was followed by a second movement with a Finnish feel, with a soft, meandering melody as if one were rambling amidst unexpected nooks and corners along the country in a summer evening evening whilst the final movement the whilst the final movement sounded like a extremely fast fluttering of the wings of a bee hovering amidst a paradise of summer flowers.

The evening's musical feast ended with Haydn's (1732-1809) Symphony No. 88, believed to be written of 1787. In this symphony, he used his normal strategy of long silences and soft passage suddenly broken by loud and forceful sound before launching his main melody in the first movement in Adagio-Allegro and innovatively used loud trumpets and drums in the usually slow second movement, here in Largo and the third in Meunetto in Allegretto has a rustic feel to it whilst the Finale, in Allegro con spiritu, is another lively and gay movement. It marked the end of another most enjoyable month of music with the HKPO. Kuuisto rewarded the thundering applauses with a jazzy solo in which he coaxed all kinds of magical sounds from his 18th century instrument!

2011年5月28日 星期六

Saturday Fun

To recover a little from the depression evoked by memories of the ferocity of feminine terrorism in SuperBro's blog, I found it absolutely necessary to seek  some relief elsewhere. Thank heaven, there is always hope in the internet. So for those suffering a similar fate, here's something to lighten up the rest of your day.

          The Guide to Wife Translations

The wife says: You want

The wife means: You want

The wife says: We need

The wife means: I want

The wife says: It's your decision

The wife means: The correct decision should be obvious

The wife says: Do what you want

The wife means: You'll pay for this later

The wife says: We need to talk

The wife means: I need to complain

The wife says: Sure... go ahead

The wife means: I don't want you to

The wife says: I'm not upset

The wife means: Of course I'm upset you moron

The wife says: You're ... so manly

The wife means: You need a shave and sweat a lot

The wife says: Be romantic, turn out the lights

The wife means: I have flabby thighs.

The wife says: This kitchen is so inconvenient

The wife means: I want a new house.

The wife says: I want new curtains.

The wife means: Also carpeting, furniture, and wallpaper!

The wife says: I need wedding shoes.

The wife means: The other forty pairs are the wrong shade of white.

The wife says: Hang the picture there

The wife means: No, I mean hang it there!

The wife says: I heard a noise

The wife means: I noticed you were almost asleep.

The wife says: Do you love me?

The wife means: I'm going to ask for something expensive.

The wife says: How much do you love me?

The wife means: I did something today you're not going to like.

The wife says: I'll be ready in a minute.

The wife means: Kick off your shoes and take an hour nap.

The wife says: Am I fat?

The wife means: Tell me I'm beautiful.

The wife says: You have to learn to communicate.

The wife means: Just agree with me.

The wife says: Are you listening to me?

The wife means: [Too late, your doomed.]

The wife says: Yes

The wife means: No

The wife says: No

The wife means: No

The wife says: Maybe

The wife means: No

The wife says: I'm sorry

The wife means: You'll be sorry

The wife says: Do you like this recipe?

The wife means: You better get used to it

The wife says: All we're going to buy is a soap dish

The wife means: I'm coming back with enough to fill this place.

The wife says: Was that the baby?

The wife means: Get out of bed and walk him

The wife says: I'm not yelling!

The wife means: Yes I am! I think this is important!

In answer to the question "What's wrong?"

The wife says: The same old thing.

The wife means: Nothing.

The wife says: Nothing.

The wife means: Everything.

The wife says: Nothing, really.

The wife means: It's just that you're an idiot.

The wife says: I don't want to talk about it.

The wife means: I'm still building up steam.

Have a nice weekend!

2011年5月27日 星期五

Lifting the Final Veil off Mysticism III

After having dealt with the questions of whether or not there is any infinite transcendent realm beyond our mundane material world, the idea of the holy, the convergence of science and mysticism, the cleansing property of skepticism, the Zen method and the desirability of viewing mysticism through the eye of an artist, Horgan asked if there is any other adequate method specially suited to evoking mystical awe without any adverse effects.

Horgan mentions the work of Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar who suggested in Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered (1997) that the chief benefit of psychedelic drugs is that they help to enrich the "wonder of normality" by enhancing the emotional impact of sensory inputs from the world. Horgan however thinks on the contrary that instead of helping us, such drugs may in fact "blind" us to the "miraculousness" of the everyday world and of our consciousness.

Horgan also cites the example of Jean Houston, the leader of the human potential movement, who thought at first that LSDs, DMTs might along with song, dance, chants, guided imagery and role-playing in mythological contexts help human consciousness expand "beyond its present limitations and on towards capacities not yet realized and perhaps undreamed of" but later became critical of this via psychedelica because while psychedelics may promote a healthy spirituality, such effects seldom prove enduring. She says, "Some might say it is a shortcut to reality. But the fact is, it doesn't seem to sustain that reality." Then in the 1970s, she and Houston and her husband Robert Masters, originally an anthropologist, invented what they called The Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device (ASCID) consisting of a suspension harness which spins blindfolded subjects around in three dimensions. It worked so well that they stopped it because according to Houston, "People would get addicted to it and even refuse to explore their inner states without first taking a ride".

To me, the methods adopted by Houston seem to tie in very well with the findings of D'Aquili and Newberg (The Mystical Mind 1999) in their study of the state of consciousness of the mystics. They distinguish between two modes of meditation: the active and passive, roughly equivalent to the active and passive mode of Chinese chi-kung practice (or exercises in controlled breathing )(氣功). During such allegedly passive "mystical" episodes, the "normal" functioning of the spatial or orientation association areas (OAA) of their brain will be disrupted because the fluid in their inner ear will, through such violent spinning, give signals so confusing to the OAA that they will lose all sense of boundaries between the "self" with the outside world and the subjects will thus "feel as if" they were at one with it. In the case of the Buddhist monks, who practice controlled breathing during their meditation, part of their breathing routine consists of holding their breath for as long as possible both after breathing in and breathing out starting at the moment they cannot breathe in or breathe out any more. I know this because I have done so and found that if I persist in holding my breath for long enough, the "mystical feeling of being one with the universe" will arise. This is consistent with the temporary suspension in the supply of oxygen to the  OAA of those patients who lost consciousness during surgical operations and who may sometimes afterwards report having had "mystical experience"  during such periods of temporary "black out" of their consciousness in episodes of so-called near death experiences (NDEs).  

Newberg and  D'Aquili call such mystical states, states of "Absolute Unitary Being (AUB)." What happens during such times of "passive meditation" (sitting meditation) is that during such brief periods when the normally functioning OAA of the brain are "knocked out", there will be what Newberg and D'Aquili call " partial de-afferentation of the OAA" during "passive meditation". They explain: "This partial de-afferentation of the OAA consists of the blocking of the input from the verbal-conceptual association area (VCAA) as well as from specific sensory modalities. Thus there is the attempt not to pay attention to direct sensory input. Further dis-attention probably generates further de-afferentation of the right OAA from the sensory areas and from VCAA. It is only a partial de-afferentation at this point because the inhibitory effects slowly builds up during the meditation. Thus there is greater and greater inhibition of input or de-afferentation, as the meditation proceeds. This partial de-afferentation of the right OAA likely results in stimulation of the right hippocampus by means of the very rich interconnections between the OAA and the hippocampus. If, in addition, there is simultaneous direct stimulation of the right hippocampus from the right attention association area (AAA), then the right hippocampus ultimately stimulates the quiescent centres of the right amygdala. After the stimulation of the right amygdala reaches a certain threshold it will stimulate the quiescent part of the hypothalamus with a resultant stimulation of the peripheral quiescent system. This stimulation results in the subjective sensation first of relaxation, and eventually, of a more and more profound quiescence. Not only is it likely that the right AAA directly stimulates the right hippocampus, but, at every step along the way, stimulation may be reinforced by 'leapfrogging' around various structures via numerous neural projections that bypass certain structures going directly to others. Thus, the right hippocampus stimulates the amygdala, which in turn powerfully stimulates the quiescent parts of the hypothalamus; but the the right hippocampus also projects fibres directly to the quiescent parts of the hypothalamus, resulting in a marked recruitment of stimulation. So we should keep this double and even triple leapfrogging stimulation effect in mind as we run through our model's schematic pathway. " In short, "a reverberating circuit" is formed,"by impulses originating in the right AAA, going to the right OAA, to the right hippocampus, to the right amygdala, to the queiscent parts of the hypothalamus and then back to the right amygdala, to the right hippocampus, and back to the right AAA directly. Impulses go around and around in this circuit, recruiting greater neural activity. The system is accelerated by ever more impulse originating in the right ASS by continued 'willed' meditation, resulting in progressive increase in the intensity of neural discharge until a maximum level is reached in the quiescent system, which results in spillover and instantaneous maximal stimulation of the arousal systems...shown to occur in third-stage autonomic tuning. This maximal stimulation of both systems results in ecstatic and blissful feeling through intense stimulation of the quiescent structures in the hypothalamus. Likewise, there is an almost instantaneous maximal feedback stimulation from the hypothalamus to the right and left amygdalas, then to the right and left hippocampi and on to the right and left AAAs. Maximal stimulation of both AAAs is powerfully and mutually reinforced by stimulating impulses passing directly between the right and left AAAs, in both directions, via fibres passing through the inter-hemispheric connector tracts. The maximal stimulation of both AAAs should almost instantly result in total de-afferentation of both the left and right AAAs."  It is significant that the OAA is concerned with generating a sense of space and spatial co-ordinates in which to orient incoming stimuli. Is this why we read that some mystics feel a profound sense of peace during their mystical episodes? 

According to Newberg and D'Aquli, "The total de-afferentation of the OAA cannot result in unusual or unmodulated visions, sounds or tactile sensations because it has no memory banks with previously stored sensations. Rather, its total de-afferenation can only result in an absolute subjective sensation of pure space.  But space has no conventional meaning except as a matrix in which to relate to objects. We propose, therefore, that pure space arising from total de-afferentation of the right OAAA is subjectively experienced as absolute unity or wholeness. At the same time the right OAA is totally de-afferented, the left OAA is likewise totally de-afferented...the left OAA may be intimately involved with the maintenance of the self/other dichotomy or the self/world dichotomy. We propose that the total de-afferentation of the left OAA results in the obliteration of self/other dichotomy at precisely the same moment that the de-afferentation of the right OAA is associated with a sense of absolute transcendent wholeness. All the events from the moment of both the arousal and the quiescent system to the total de-afferentation of both the right and left OAAs may occur so rapidly as to be experienced by the subject as instantaneous. We believe that this results in the subject's attainment of rapturous transcendence and absolute wholeness that conveys such overwhelming power and strength that the subject has the sense of experiencing absolute reality. This is the state of AUB. Indeed, so ineffable is this state that for those who experience it, even the memory of it carries a sense of greater reality than the reality of our everyday world (as reported by a number of experiencers interviewed by us as well as reported in the world's mystical literature). The first part of the activation of the relevant system may take days, weeks, months or even years of regular disciplined meditation to develop (the time needed depending on the aptitude of the subject) but once activated, the rest of the process subsequent to the moment of spillover are automatic and occur almost instantaneously".

Newberg and d'Aquili also found one other feature of interest during the subject's mystical episodes. "Although both the right and left OAAs have had all input blocked, they still can send outputs to other parts of the brain...primarily to the hippocampi but also other limbic structure." They believe that "these impulses determine the steady state of the the limbic system during the period of the AUB. They either reinforce the initial ecstasy by ultimately reinforcing the arousal hypothalamic discharge or they switch balance from ecstasy to a deep and profound quiescence by allowing the quiescent hypothalamic structures to regain dominance." In the first case, "not only is AUB experienced initially as ecstasy, but the ecstasy is maintained throughout the remaining period of meditation".  In the second case,  "after the initial moments of ecstasy, AUB is experienced as a deep quiescent void or Nirvana". They suggest that the first case tends to be interpreted personally after the experience as "the immediate experience of or union with God" whereas in the second case, the AUB experience tends to be interpreted impersonally, as the peace and emptiness of the absolute ground of being. They suggest further that those meditators who practise the via negativa (passive meditation) tend to end up in the quiescent experience of the AUB but those who engage in the via positiva ( by intensely concentrating on an object or idea) tend to end up with the ecstatic experience of AUB ie. an arousal state.

I understand that in one of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist traditions, there is a
type of practice which advocates that its practitoners get into an
ecstatic mystical state by engaging in ritualistic sexual intercourse. That way of getting into an ecstatic state is however not just confined to Tibet. In one of the Islamic mystic tradition, the Sufis also engage in ritual swirling around to get themselves into a state of AUB. These also involve disturbing the normal functioning of the mechanism in our inner ear for maintaining "normal" balance. They do so through mechanical means. There is an analogous way of getting into an AUB or mystical state through what Newberg and d'Aquili describe as the via positiva. The Chinese too, have two modes of doing chi kung(氣功) or breathing exercises respectively called tung kung or active practice (動功) and ching kung or passive practice(靜功) which are roughly equivalent to what the two neuroscientists call via positiva and via negativa. I already dealt with the via negativa. What happens if the meditators practice the via positiva? The neural pathways and the activations and the de-activation of the relevant parts of the brain systems are roughly the same after the point of hypothalamic spillover. What differs is what happens before that point. The practice starts by the meditator not clearing his mind but instead focusing his attention on to a mental image or an external physical object. Usually the image is a religious image carrying powerful emotional overtones e.g a cross, or an image of Christ or the Buddha etc. This would help to stimulate the limbic system. But the object need not be a religious object. It could be just any stone or even a chair. When he does that, the visual impulses pass from the right AAA of the willing or intending subject to the right OAA. In this case, the impulses are facilitatory, not inhibitory or de-afferenting as they were in the via negativa.  If the meditator's eyes are open and the image originates in the retina, it is passed back through the visual system to the primary visual area in the occipital lobe and then to the secondary visual association area (VAA) where it receives its most complex associations. The image is then fixed and attended to by the right OAA. If the subject wishes to recall an image from his memory, whether of an ordinary object or a  religious symbol, a past memory, this would be effected by the stimulatory impulses running from the right AAA directly to the right VAA. Then the right AAA stimulates the right OAA to fix the image and attend to it in a steady, highly focused manner. They say: " Continuous fixation on the presented by the right VAA begins to stimulate the right hippocampus, which in turn stimulate the right amygdala, which in turn stimulate the the arousal parts of the hypothalamus, generating a mildly pleasant sensation (although the initial rhythmic repetition may elicit a quiescent response). The impulses then pass back to the right amygdala and hippocampus, gathering intensity as they go along. This then feeds back to the right AAA, reinforcing the whole system with progressively intense concentration upon the object. Thus a reverberating loop is established, similar to that of the via negativa. The circuit then continues to reverberate and to augment in intensity until the stimulation of the arousal parts of the hypothalamus becomes maximal, creating a 'spillover' such that maximal stimulation of the quiescent parts of the hypothalamus occurs simultaneously with the on-going maximal stimulation of the arousal system. At this point, there would be maximal stimulation feedback through the limbic structures of the left and right AAA....this results in instantaneous maximal stimulation of the left AAA with immediate total deafferentation of the left OAA. In this case, the inhibitory impulses generated by the AAA must fight against a pre-existing and very strong, facilitatory or stimulating system that is generated by fixing and focusing upon an object. Since the meditating subject still intends to to focus in an ever more concentrated way on the object of meditation, this system continues to be reinforced even in the presence of ecstatic feelings generated within the limbic system and a progressively stronger assertion of the inhibitory de-afferenting system. Throughout the period when there is conflict between the facilitatory and inhibitory mechanisms, there has been total instantaneous de-afferentation of the left OAA. Thus the self/other dichotomy has been obliterated during a fairly long period when the image still remains a focus of meditation.This, they suggest, is the time when the subjects feel absorbed into the object or describe themselves as becoming one with the the object. This period of meditation upon the object with the subject feels at one with the image, the symbol or event may be relatively long, depending on the intention of the subject. But sooner or later, in the face of the maximal arousal and quiescent discharge, either the meditator surrenders or possibly even against their will, the inhibitory influences take over and total de-afferentation of the right OAA occurs. Since the left OAA has already been totally de-afferented, the self/other dichotomy has been obliterated for some time. Thus the end point of the via positiva become the end point of the via negativa viz. maximal stimulation of the arousal and quiescent systems with total de-afferentation of ther ight and left OAAs, creating the experience of AUB.  

To Newberg and d'Aquili, how the relevant mystic experiences are "described" and "interpreted" are usually related to the relevant cultural and religious traditions of the meditators but no matter how they describe or interpret them, the actual experience of AUB is necessarily the same from a neuro-physiological and philosophical perspective as an infinite, unified and totally undifferentiated state. To the authors, lesser mystical states such as hyperlucid visions, trances, and sense of religious awe are slightly different because the full neuro-physiological substrate of the AUB does not occur eg. no total de-afferentation of both OAA or there only slight changes in the activity of the limbic system. But it is difficult to study such lesser mystical state because the subjects may not be able to describe them adequately due to their linguistic ability and this is precisely why they are often described as "ineffable". This is because, Newberg and d'Aquili say, unlike most human "higher cortical" experiences, language elements are not integral to mystical states. "Neuro-physiologically, it seems that the language centers are generally bypassed in the generation of mystical experiences. Thus language elements are at best peripheral to the core experiences. Because of this linguistic difficulty, the authors think that the only totally reliable method of differentiation is by their underlying neurophysiology. In lesser mystical states either there is a lack of total de-afferentation of all relevant parts or the relevant de-afferentations of the two limbs of the system do not occur at the same time, resulting in some degree of multiplicity of elements within the unitary matrix. 

After this rather lengthy and technical digression into the neuro-physiology of the mystic experience, it' s perhaps time to return to Horgan's conclusions. Horgan reports that some spiritual seekers have used mementos moris eg. a human skull to keep themselves mindful of death and some Buddhist even encourage their disciples to sit next to or on top of a rotting corpse, perhaps to desensitize them to death. "Dwelling on death, the abyss, nothingness, may convince you that it is the only abiding reality and that all finite, time-bound phenomena, including our own mortal selves are ephemeral and hence in some sense unreal". To Horgan, this may be one of the greatest dangers of the mystical experience: that we will be left with a permanent sense of de-realization and de-personalization either by dwelling too much on the spiritual or by losing all interest in this life or both. In the words of Ken Wilbur, this is "to snap out of the movie of life." Horgan observes, "The mystic sees our existence against the backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from it. To the mystic, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial." To him, we should learn from the horrors of death how wonderful it is and how grateful we should be to find ourselves still alive. He advises us, very sensibly, to see right  or "really see" and to look at everything in perspective: "Just as believers in a beneficent deity should be haunted by the problem of natural evil, so gnostics, atheists, pessimists, and nihilists should be haunted by the problem of friendship, love, beauty, truth, humor, compassion, fun".

Next, Horgan dwells on a theme which seems important to him: the importance with which some mystics view oneness or unity. To some of the mystics, awe, wonder are just side effects of mystical awareness. William James singled out oneness as the dominant theme in the writings of all the mystics defined by him as "the overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute." He says in The Varieties of Religious Experience , "In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think." Horgan quotes Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, two veteran American alternative spiritual teachers who had taught yoga, male-female relationship since the early 1970s. In their Guru Papers (93), they say that they were disillusioned with Buddhism, Hinduism and other mystical traditions. Though they admitted that mystical visions may "alter one's relationship to daily life and also profoundly change the way one approaches death and dying", once we start to translate our vision into ideologies, such as the oneness doctrine, trouble starts. To them, the oneness doctrine is appealing to many Americans because it seems less authoritarian and more abstract than "patriarchal Western theologies". They think that by exalting self-abnegation and renunciation of the world as supreme virtues, Hinduism and Buddhism also appear to offer an antidote to excessive selfishness. However, to them, oneness has within it " a hidden duality" that leads to hierarchical social division. "These supposedly enlightened gurus and avatars often insist that others will achieve enlightenment only through total surrender to them...The very nature of any  structure that makes one person different and superior to others...breeds authoritarianism." Hindu ashrams, Buddhist monasteries and other organizations founded on the oneness principle are usually authoritarian and patriarchal. This is a good observation. To Horgan, seen in this light, some mystical rhetoric appears "not paradoxical, but Orwellian: Only through submission will we find true liberation. All are one but some are more one than others.". The oneness principle seems to suggest that life is a problem that can be solved, a riddle that can be answered, a cul-de-sac from which one can and should escape. He agrees with Smith that "enlightenment--defined as supernatural wisdom, grace and moral perfection--is best viewed as an ideal unattainable by mere mortals".  If we were to judge it by its fruits, as James advises, this principle does not fare well. "Belief in the myth of total enlightenment too often turns spiritual teachers into narcissistic monsters and their students into mindless slaves". Ken Wilbur told Horgan, "Even the most apparently enlightened masters have feet of clay--all, no exceptions"  Here he echoes what I have often told my friends. Horgan says caustically, " Mystical achievement, I suspect, is as closely related with moral maturity as scientific or artistic achievement is. In other words, not at all.".

As an ironic comment on the idea of oneness, Horgan quotes James Austin's first koan,  "When all things return to the one, where is the one returned to?" To him, the return of all things to one is "arguably a route to oblivion: one thing equals to nothing". He thinks that the Indian sage Ramakrishna  was of the same opinion when the latter said, "I want to taste sugar; I don't want to be sugar.". He raises a number of questions about the practical logic of the idea of oneness: "Do we really want to live in a world in which there is no other, in which there are no selves but only a single Self? Is that heaven or a solipsistic hell?" Stanislav Grof informed Horgan that various theological doctrines suggest that God cannot bear to stay forever in a sate of absolute oneness and that is why He created this flawed and fractured world. "This seems to be the implication of the Kabbalist doctrine of tsimtsum which holds that creation occurs when God somehow withdraws from Himself; of Meister Eckhart's crytic comment that 'God waxes and wanes' and of Ken Wilbur's remark that not even God likes to eat dinner alone." He comes to a surprising conclusion: "If enlightenment is defined as a state of perfect, permanent unity with all things, then not even God is or can be totally enlightened."

Horgan also speculates on the desirability of a perfect union with God. He does so indirectly through a hypothetical scenario. He asked a psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin according to whose system for rating the effects of different drugs, the ultimate altered state is a plus 4, "a rare and precious transcendental state, a blissful peak experience in which one feels a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes". To Shulgin, if a drug would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment. Horgan asked him, what would be the consequences for humanity of such a discovery? Shulgin replied: "Perpetual bliss. In eternal life with no negatives, no anger, no sadness, no competition. There would also be no motivation, no urge to change to anything and I am afraid, no creativity. The evolutionary pressure for survival no longer exists. I believe this would be the end of our species.".  His answer certainly bears thinking. I often told my daughter to be careful what she asks God for and warns her that it might be the case that the day God grants her wishes, she would consider it an absolute disaster. Perhaps, we should bear in mind the story of the golden touch of King Midas! Mystics are not exempted!

Having come to the end of the book, Horgan feels he only needs to address just one last issue: freewill. Susan Blackmore told him that free will is an illusion. But Horgan thinks that if free will is an illusion, it is one that we need or at least one that he needs, "even more than God".  He says, "I have no choice but to choose free will." He believes that our belief in free will has social value: "it provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than entrust our fate to Jehweh or Allah or the Tao or the timewave. We must accept that things will get better and better only as a result of our efforts, not because we are fulfilling some preordained supernatural plan.". But he is not sure if free will truly exists. He ends the quest, as he  began it, "mystified" or " convictionally impaired" an expression he borrowed from Huston Smith.

Horgan concludes: I believe--I know--that our existence is infinitely improbable, a miracle transcending any possible explanation. But I have no idea whether this miracle is eternal or ephemeral. My view of mysticism dispenses with most of the other traditional consolations of spirituality. It does not promise us rebirth, or paranormal powers, or saintly moral wisdom, or immunity from suffering, or heaven or Buddhaverse or meaning or justice beyond what we create for ourselves. It does not give us the starring role in some divine drama. But it leaves us with a kind of consolation that is enough for me." That consolation is, I believe,  put in his Epilogue where he saw the beauty of Nature. He saw some frost. "Mystified, I stared at the pallid earth, and all of a sudden, I saw them, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, points of pure iridescence, sprinkled like fairy dust on the path lading back to our home."

Horgan is a hard headed rationalist. But he is a rationalist with with a healthy dose of skepticism, with plenty of common sense, with a heart, with imagination and with an eye for something which I think has eternal value: beauty!

2011年5月26日 星期四

Lifting the Final Veil off Mysticism II

Having looked at what Horgan had to say in the introduction to his book, it would be interesting to find out what he has to say in his conclusion, entitled "The Awful Truth".

In this final chapter, Horgan describes his encounter with Huston Smith, a perennialist who has written extensively about various world religions ( The World's Religions 1991, Forgotten Truth 1992, Cleansing the Doors of Perception 2000, Why Religion Matters 2001). Smith thinks that all wisdom traditions proclaim that our consciousness is not just an epiphenomenon of our brain which extinguishes upon our death and is more enduring than material science implies and if he were forced to boil the perennial philosophy down to a single tenet, he would say that beyond our mundane material world lies an infinite transcendent realm, the infinite being "that outside of which it is impossible to fall." and that a mystical experience "makes the obtuse blockages to the infinite transparent.". Horgan disagreed, saying that some mystics insisted that they are not transported to some transcendent "beyond", but just see ordinary reality for what it really is. Smith agreed that before the practice of meditation, the world is what it appears to be and after the practice, the world still appears the same but added that the way we perceive that world is totally different: the mystical experience infuses our vision with awe, which, according to the German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1923)  "combines fear and fascination and...may be the the distinctive religious emotion". So mysticism is just "awe-struck perception of the infinite in the finite." Otto used the Latin words numen  ( power of either a deity or a spirit that is thought to be present in certain sacred places and objects. Literally it means "nodding", but has been used in the context of "command" or "divine majesty") and mysterium tremendum.( overwhelming or awe-inspiring mystery causing fear and trembling). Our encounter with the mysterium tremendum can strike us "chill and numb" and fill us with "an almost grisly horror and shuddering". Per Otto, "It is not anything we can possibly identify with, let alone become. It is not a deity, force, principle, spirit or ground of being--not a thing at all. It is 'wholly other', 'nothingness', the 'opposite of everything that is and can be thought'. It is absence, not presence." and Horgan adds, "religions do not reveal the mysterium tremendum but shield us from direct confrontation with it. "They are attempts ...to guess the riddle it propounds, and their effect is at the same time always to weaken and deaden the experience itself.... Theology often ends by constructing such a massive structure of theory and such a plausible fabric of interpretation, that the 'mystery' is frankly excluded". Horgan says that the infinite is the nothingness from which we came and to which we must return, whether we call it Yahweh, God, Allah, ground of being, Brahman, void or mysterium tremendum.

Horgan continues "Seeing life against the backdrop of infinity can evoke joy, madness, terror, revulsion, love, gratitude, hilarity--or all of the above at once. You may delight in the world's astonishing beauty or despair at its fragility and insignificance.....mystical awe is the inverse of knowledge; it is a kind of anti-knowledge. Instead of seeing The Answer to the riddle of existence, you see just how impenetrable the riddle is". He thinks that we are anti-mystical to the extent that we think that reality has been or can be explained by e.g. Hinduism, theosophy or gnosticism lite or superstring theory or any theory or theology. To the extent that they think their vision has revealed to them The Truth, The Answer, the secret of life or Ken Wilbur's trans-personal periodic table, the mystics can be anti-mystical because at the heart of things, is what Wilbur says" a staggering mystery....that facts alone can never begin to fulfill."   But our "compulsion" to seek to explain that mysterium tremendum is understandable because as Otto suggests, confronting the abyss of non-being can be terrifying: life is precarious and gratuitous: there is no need for us to exist. But "the flip side of mystical terror is joy: we should not be here and yet we are!" Heaven and hell are two sides of the same mystical vision.

Most of the mystical experts Horgan interviewed are mystified and awed by life. Steven Katz (ed. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis 1978 ) says that "ultimate reality" by its very nature eludes us. James Austin (Chase, Chance and Creativity 1978, 2003) thinks that our existence is "beyond belief".  Stanislav Grof thinks that creation is "a mystery you cannot account for" and Terence McKenna thinks that gnosis can never capture the weirdness of the world. Everyone is agreed that there is an irreducible mystery at the heart of existence: perennial philosophy, postmodernism, negative theology, trans-personal psychology, neuro-theology, gnosticism, and neo-shamanism. So does science, he adds.

There are, nonetheless, many "convergences" between science and mysticism: cognitive psychology is said to "corroborate" the Buddhist doctrine that the self is an "illusion", the very process of the quantum measurement itself is supposed to "confirm" the mystical intuition that consciousness and human subjectivity is an intrinsic part of reality and quantum nonlocality, which Einstein once disparaged as "spooky action at a distance..clinches the mystics' perception of the interrelatedness or unity of all things". But Horgan thinks that each one of such corroborations reveals in its own way, the "miraculousness" of our life: "how staggeringly improbable we are: the fact that we exist"; the big bang theory might explain the changes in the structure of the universe after it happened but not why it happened in the first place; particle physics might suggest that empty space is seething with "virtual particles" which spring into existence for an instant and then vanish or that it is possible that the entire universe might have sprung into existence like a virtual particle but many physicists admit that they have no idea why there is something rather than nothing. Steven Weinberg ( Dreams of a Final Theory 1992 and Facing Up 2001) eg. says, "No one is certain what happened before the Big Bang or even if the question has any meaning.". Then there is the question of why the universe should adhere to those laws of nature and have the kind of physical "constants" which scientists have in fact found and which strangely all appear to converge to make the emergence of life possible. If the cosmos had been slightly more dense at the beginning, it would have quickly collapsed into a black hole and if it were "a smidgeon less dense", it would have blown apart so fast that there would have been no time for stars, galaxies and planets to form. Why should the universe be so "fine-tuned" for the emergence of life: this is the so-called "Goldilock dilemma" or the "anthropic principle." Although Richard Dawkins once declared that life is no longer a mystery because Darwin has solved it with his theory of evolution by natural selection , we still do not know why there should be life in the first place or whether it was just a "once-in-eternity fluke." Although some scientists suggest that life must be a ubiquitous phenomenon pervading the universe, the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) which had been scanning the universe for radio signals from other civilizations since the early 1960s, has failed to find any such and space probes of other accessible planets have so far failed to find any signs of life in other planets and despite years of trial scientists have still been unable to create animate from inanimate matter in our laboratories. In Life Itself (1981), Francis Crick the discoverer of the double-helix, suggested that the seeds of life might have been planted on earth by an alien civilization. Stephen Jay Gould (Punctuated Equilibrium 2007) estimated that if the great experiment of life were re-run a million times over, the chances are that it would never again give rise to mammals, let alone mammals clever enough to invent negative theology and television. Susan Blackmore offers an explanation for human superstition and their tendency to believe in various gods: the average man is notoriously bad in judging probabilities. That may be why we are so prone to make too much of chance events, as evidenced by so many people falling for beliefs in ESP, clairvoyance, telekinesis and other "miracles". 

Horgan does not think that it is possible for science to answer the ultimate question of how something came from nothing. He repeats his conclusion in The End of Science that science's grand quest to uncover the basic rules governing reality might be reaching an impasse and remains shrouded in mystery. The astronomer Chet Raymo (Skeptics and True Believers 1998) has, however, given five compelling reasons why science instead of religion should form the basis of a new spirituality which he calls the "New Story":  1. science works. 2. it's universal and is true for all people at all times 3. it emphasizes the inter-connectedness of all people and all things. 4. it makes ourselves rather than some diety or transcendental force responsible for our own destiny and 5. it reveals the universe to be more vast, more complex and more beautiful than we ever imagined. But he also recognizes that there is no guarantee, as contrasted with conventional religions, that we shall somehow survive. He says, " We are contingent, ephemeral--animated stardust cast up on a random shore, a brief incandescence." What the "New Story" makes clear is that we are not immortal.
Huston Smith considers that science cannot assure us a "happy ending" and is thus inadequate as a basis for spirituality. But Horgan does not agree. He prefers Terence McKenna's( The Invisible Landscape 1975)  timewave and Freeman Dyson's (Infinite in All Directions 1988) principle of maximum diversity which to him offers "endless adventure rather than closure". Scientists are thinking of ways of making consciousness last forever through our own ingenuity, instead of through divine intervention. Dyson thinks that consciousness, in the form of clouds of charged particles rather than flesh and blood, might resist entropy and sustain itself forever in an eternally expanding universe through shrewd conservation of energy. To Horgan, this kind of speculation about ultimate end is merely "scientific theology" or theology in the garb of science. But at least it shows that "science can imagine futures at least as hopeful and open-ended as those of religion".

Horgan is undaunted. He thinks that although we can never solve the riddle of existence, we must not stop trying. However, he thinks that skepticism alone (and the cold hard facts of science) is for him a non-starter and "cannot serve as the basis for spirituality". He is grateful to Susan Blackmore for teaching him that Zen is a kind of "rubbish-removal system that cleanses the mind of extraneous beliefs (like parallel dimensions and universes, heavens and hells, gods and ghosts and demiurges and extraterrestrials) and emotions so that we can see reality for what it truly is." He argues, "Skepticism clears away cumbersome beliefs on an intellectual level, just as meditation (ideally) clears away beliefs, emotions, and thoughts on a more experiential level. Skepticism can help us achieve mystical de-automatization." But he has his own doubts about even skepticism. To him, "minimalist as it is, Zen clutters more than it clarifies my mind....Maybe skepticism, instead of cleansing our vision, just substitutes one type of trash for another. Instead of belief in reincarnation, angels, ESP, ET, parallel universes and the Oedipus complex, the skeptic crams his mind with disbelief in reincarnation, angels and so on." I think he is absolutely on target. In the same manner that John Donne says, "Death, thou shalt die", skepticism must finally turn its own fatal blade upon itself so that in the end, nothing remains, even skepticism. In the same manner that St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas think that sin has no reality since sin and evil is only the absence of good, skepticism is parasitic in that without belief, skepticism has nothing upon which it may act on. Horgan says, " The problem is that any truth or anti-truth, no matter how initially revelatory and awe-inspiring, sooner or later turns into garbage that occludes our vision of the living world. He cites the example of Ludwig Wittgenstein who, like the great Buddha, advises his followers to abandon the dharma once it has served its purpose and get on with the problem of actually living their lives in accordance with their new insight, also described his philosophy as a ladder that we should "throw away" after we climbed it.

In the end, Horgan advises us, to treat mystical insights, as we treat art. He says, " At its best, art--by which I mean poetry, literature, music, movies, painting, sculpture--works in this manner. Art, the lies that tells the truth, is intrinsically ironic. Like Ludwig  Wittgenstein's (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 1990) ladder, it helps us get to another level and then falls away. What better way to approach the mystical, the truth that cannot be told?". He sensibly suggests that all our modes of expression, including art, fall short of the mystical truth. But there is an advantage in speaking about the inexpressible, the ineffable, the intangible in the language of art because "unlike more literal modes of expression, art comes closer to uttering the unutterable by acknowledging its own insufficiency. It gives us not answers but questions". However, this does not mean that mystical insights cannot be expressed with other modes of knowledge like science, philosophy, theology etc. Only that we must take care to view "even the most fact laden mystical texts ironically when they turn to ultimate questions." Horgan suggests that we read the Upanishad, Genesis, Dionysius the Areopagite and neurotheolgoical suppositions of Andrew Newberg as we read Blake or Borges or Emily Dickinson. From this perspective, he says, even the "old stories of religion, can serve a purpose. Whether they postulate super intelligent clouds of gas, insectoid aliens in hyperspace, a Demiurge with multiple-personality disorder or a loving God who for inscrutable reasons make us suffer, well-told ghost stories can remind us of the unfathomable mystery at the heart of things. Our creation myths and eschatologies, our imaginings of ultimate beginnings and ends, can also help us discover our deepest fears and desires." He falls back to that witty sage of the Enlightenment Voltaire who said: " It is truly extravagant to define God, angels and minds, and to know precisely why God defined the world, when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one." 

2011年5月25日 星期三

Lifting the Final Veil off Mysticism. I

Science is a powerful tool. Nothing seems to have escaped its probe, even mysticism. I have been trying to probe this powerful religious emotion for a long time, through study and through practice. I believe I am close to the end. But is that so? I turned to another book, one of the best, in my opinion. It is Rational Mysticism (2003) . It has a rather long subtitle: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality and an explanatory line under its formal title: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment. All the magic or buzz words are there: mysticism, spirituality, rationality, science and enlightenment. It is written by John Horgan, who gave us The End of Science (1997) and The Undiscovered Mind (1999).

As Horgan said in his introduction, enlightenment is the telos of the great Eastern religions: Hinduism and Buddhism and has also played not a small role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All kinds of organizations are now offering courses that promise to deliver nirvana to devotees like Transcendental Meditation, Hare Krishna movements, centres of "holistic learning" like the Omega Institute in New York, Naropa Institute in Colorado and the California Institute for Integral Studies, with courses in Vipassana meditation, shamanic drum beating, tantric yoga, Kabala studies and Sufi dancing etc. whilst others seek mystical insights through ingesting drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote cactus fruit, ayahuasca etc. .

In this book, Horgan tried to explore the answers to a number of related questions like "what can neuroscience, psychiatry and other related science tell us about the causes of mystical states? Are there any risks in following the mystical path, by meditation or ingesting peyote? What is the link between mysticism, madness and morality? Does belief in mysticism always go hand in hand with belief in parapsychology? What is the nature of the supreme mystical state, sometimes called enlightenment? Will science ever produce a mystical technology powerful enough to deliver enlightenment on demand?" But first, he has to define what he means by the word "mysticism". According to him, the word comes from the Greek word "mu" which means silent or mute and the adjective "mystikos" referred to secrets revealed only those initiated into esoteric sects: mystical knowledge was that which should not be revealed. "Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed," he says and then quotes the Tao Te Ching "Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.". In other words, none who talks about mysticism really knows anything. But as he says, some are more qualified to talk about it than others. So in the book, he interviewed a number of people who are supposed to know more about it than the others. Some mystics claim that you cannot comprehend mystical experience unless you have at least one. He agrees, up to a point. But he thinks that Francisco Varela (with J. Hayward, eds.Gentle Bridges: Dialogues Between the Cognitive Sciences and the Buddhist Tradition 1992; with J. Shear, eds. The View from Within: First-Person Methodologies in the Study of Consciousness 1999) is right that to understand the mind, you need both a first person and a third person perspective.

Horgan laments the fact that "there are no clear cut criteria for judging spiritual expertise". He agrees with Howard Gardner, ( Intelligence Reframed 1999) who advocated a multiple-intelligence theory, that reasonable standards exist for evaluating scientific, mathematical, athletic, artistic, literary and musical achievement but there exists no objective measure for the "attainment of a state of spiritual truth" and he thinks that it is the same in the study of mysticism. All he could do, as a second best, is to summarize the views of a number of scientists who have done empirical researches into mystical experiences, whether induced by meditation, prayer, epilepsy, electro-magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes or psylocybin like Andrew Newberg (with Eugene D'Aquli The Mystical Mind 1999 with D' Aquili & Vince Rause  Why God Won't Go Away 2001), Michael Persinger ( Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs 1987), James Austin ( Zen and the Brain 1998) , Franz Vollenweider and the psychologist Susan Blackmore (Beyond the Body, 1992 ; Dying to Live 1993; , In Search of the Light 1996;  The Meme Machine 1999) . He did not ignore the works by psychedelicists like Stanislav Grof (LSD Psychotherapy 1980, Psychology of the Future 2000and Terence McKenna ( Food of the Gods 1992) because their contribution to "modern spirituality" have been "surprisingly large".

Horgan agrees with the German psychologist Adolf Dittrich ( who with Claudia Müller-Ebeling : Visionäre Kunst, in: Adolf Dittrich, Albert Hofmann u.a. (Hrsg.): Welten des Bewusstseins (Bd. 1: Ein interdisziplinärer Dialog), Worlds of Consciousness Berlin 1993) who studied altered states of consciousness that such experiences, whether drug induced or not, fall into three "dimensions": 1. what Freud calls "oceanic boundlessness": the classic blissful, unitive experience reported by Richard Bucke (Cosmic Consciousness 1974) and other mystics with a sense of self-transcendence, timelessness and fearlessness and an intuition that all the world's contradictions have been resolved. 2. what Dittrich calls the "dread of ego dissolution" ie. such negative emotions from mild uneasiness to full blown terror and paranoia and 3. what Dittrich calls "visionary restructuration" including such hallucinations ranging from "abstract, kaleidoscopic images to elaborate dreamlike narratives" which Dittrich picturesquely labels respectively "heaven, hell and visions". Personally, Horgan had a drug induced hallucinogen-induced experience in 1981 in which he experienced all three dimensions. He says, " Like Richard Bucke, I saw, I knew, that there is no death, not for me, not for anyone or anything; there is only life, forever and ever. Then the ground of being was yanked from under me. I saw, I knew, that life is ephemeral: death, and nothingness are the only abiding certainties. We are in perpetual free fall, and there is no ground of being, no omnipotent God to catch us.". He has never since stopped brooding over the implications of this experience. He asks a question which all those who at one time or another had had such an experience will also never cease to raise: are all such visions, illusions, generated by overexcited neural circuits?   Houston Smith ( The World's Religions 1991; Cleansing the Doors of Perception 2000 and Why Religion Matters 2001), a mystically inclined philosopher, like some others, has argued that all mystical experiences, despite their diversity and apparent contradictions, all point to the same universal truth about the nature of reality, a truth which is not frightening but comforting, a position known as perennial philosophy. Is he right? 

2011年5月24日 星期二

The Ultimate Concern of Chuang Tzu

The recent talk at the HK Taoist Association on Chuang Tzu has rekindled my interest in what to me is the most liberated ancient Chinese  philosopher. So I read an article in Dr. Ng Yu Kwan (吳汝鈞)(Ng) 'A Modern Analysis of Lao-Chuang (老莊学的現代析論) (98) entitled "The Ultimate Concern of Chuang Tzu) (莊子的終極關懷) .

Ng borrowed the concept of "ultimate concern from the influential the German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian Paul Johannes Tillich (1886 – 1965), who wrote the books The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith
(1957) for the laymen and a three-volume Systematic Theology (1951–63) for professionals in which he explored the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the existential philosophical problems of man by using his "method of correlation"( seeking the meaning of the revelation by God's self-manifestation by relating them to issues in contemporary society). To him, whilst philosophy formulates the central questions implied in human existence, i.e. ontology or what it means to exist and to be a finite human being,  Christian theology formulates the answers implied in God's self-manifestation in the context of such an  existential search.Man is thus engaged in a kind of hermeneutic circle wherein the questions and answers are inextricably bound to each other and philosophical, existential and theological tasks overlap and may include each other. To Tillich, man's "ultimate concern" demands that any theological answers he finds, like the Christian response, be correlated to and be compatible with the answer at the same time general non-theological ontological questions. But what is man's ultimate concern, according to Tillich? "Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things,
above all about those which condition his very existence...If [a
situation or concern] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of
him who accepts this claim...it demands that all other concerns...be
sacrificed."( Dynamics of Faith("DF) pp-1-2) and again ""Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It
is the most centered act of the human mind...it participates in the
dynamics of personal life."( DF p 5).To Tillich, faith is ecstatic:"It transcends both the drives of the non-rational unconsciousness
and the structures of the rational conscious...the ecstatic character of
faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not
identical with it, and it includes non-rational strivings without being
identical with them. 'Ecstasy' means 'standing outside of oneself' -
without ceasing to be oneself - with all the elements which are united
in the personal center." (DF pp8-9). Tillich does not exclude atheists in his exposition of faith. Everyone has an ultimate concern, and this
concern can be in an act of faith, "even if the act of faith includes
the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied
only in the name of God." But Ng stresses that when he employs the expression "ultimate concern", he does not wish to relate it directly to any religion. He just wishes to indicate what is of most concern to Chuang Tzu's life.

To  Ng, what most concerns Chuang Tzu can be seen in The Sage's Journey to the North知北遊: "To embody the Tao is what every perfect gentlemen is attached to" (夫體道者, 天下之君子所繫焉) ie. to embrace the Tao and to make it one's own. What does that entail? He says in "Heaven and Earth" (天下篇) :'He came and went with the spirit of heaven and earth but never hold himself above anything and makes no distinction between what is good and what is bad and accommodates himself in the conventional world...He is fulfilled beyond himself, roving with the Creator above and friends with those who go beyond life and death, beginning and ending. His origin is great and penetrating, wide and deep and in fulfilling his purpose, he harmonizes and acts appropriately to fit in with what is above him" (獨與天地精神往來而不敖倪於萬物,以與世俗處...彼其充實不可以己,上與造物者遊,而與外生死無終始者為友。其於本也,弘大而辟,深閎而肆;其於宗也,可謂稠適而上遂矣).

Dr. Ng says that in 崔大華's Study of Chuang Tzu,(莊學研究) the word "Tao" appears more than 320 times and that its meaning may be classified two ways, linguistically and philosophically and that in the second case, we can distinguish the word in three ways: the Tao as considered as something concrete, the Tao considered as an abstract principle and the Tao considered globally and in the third case, it frequently points to the origin of the universe and the highest stage in the development of the human spirit and human morality. To Ng, this is equivalent to what he says is Chuang's ultimate concern, the highest level in his philosophy, not inferred from religious or ethical concepts but is deeply concerned with  the existence or being of the universe in natural philosophy (不是從宗教觀念和倫理觀念中推導出來,而是與自然哲學有深厚關連的宇宙本體),.

Ng thinks that in studying Chuang Tzu, scholars often emphasize his subjectivity and his spirituality and would look upon it as a mental state, an expression of the sublimed self but he thinks that we should not underestimate its objectivity e.g as expressed by Chuang Tzu in The Great Master (大宗師)("There is a kind of love, a kind of faithfulness in Tao. It does nothing. It has no form. It can be communicated but not given. It can be attained but not seen. It is its own source and its own roots. It has always existed from antiquity before even heaven and earth. It animates the spirit and kings. It gives birth to heaven and earth. It is higher than the Tai Chi and deeper than the 6 poles. It was born before heaven and earth yet was longer, it had life in antiquity and yet was older) (夫道有情有信,無為無形;可傳而不可受,可得而不可見。自本自根,未有天地,自古已固存;神鬼神帝,生天生地;在太極之上而不為高,在六極之下而不為深,先天地生而不為久,長於上古而不為老). From this, it can be seen that the Tao does have visible and concrete effects in the physical and human world and may be treated as having a kind of love, a kind of faithfulness, is self-generated but is able to animate the gods and man, has existed before heaven and earth. But I think that when here when Chuang Tzu was talking about love (or emotions) and faithfulness, he may be talking metaphorically and anthropocentrically as if Nature had a personality. The faithfulness may be faithfulness and its attachment may be faithfulness and attachment to its own impersonal and self-given principles. 

What exactly is the Tao according to Chuang Tzu? Ng thinks that it is the principle upon which everything in the universe arises, moves and have their being and is the cause everything which is. He quotes The Old Fisherman (漁父): "The Tao is the source of everything. All who lose it die and all who attain it live. Acting against it spells ruin, acting with it spells success." (道者,萬物之所由也。庶物失之者死,得之者生;為事逆之者敗,順之則成。). Tao is the principle of life! But the Tao cannot be seen, heard, tasted, touched. He says in The Sage's Journey to the North 知北遊 : " You can't see its shape. You can't hear its sound. In human terms, it may be described as dark and dark. Therefore the Tao that can be talked about is not the true Tao." (視之無形,聽之無聲,於人之論者,謂之冥冥,所以論道,而非道也)。To Chuang Tzu, those who have attained the Tao will not be bothered about how things began or ended. He says in Travelling to Chu (則陽): " Those who understand the Tao will not pursue how things end. Nor will they examine how they began. That is where the discussion stops." (覩道之人,不隨其所廢,不原其所起,此議之所止。) 

How does the Tao give birth to life?  Chi's Journey to the North (知北遊) Chuang Tzu says: "The bright originates in the dark, form originates in formlessness, the spirit originates in the Tao. Forms originate from spirit and everything originates from forms...It comes without footprints, it goes beyond all limits; without doors, without houses, it is empty in all four directions. Without it, the sky cannot be high; without it, the earth cannot be wide; without it, the sun and the moon cannot move; without it, everything cannot prosper. That is the Tao!... Deep, deep as the sea, high, high as the mountains. At the end, it starts again. It moves everything and never lacks anything. (夫昭昭生於冥冥,有倫生於無形,精神生於道,形本生于精,而萬物以形相生...其來無跡,其往無崖,無門無房,四達之皇皇也。天不得不高,地不得不廣,日月不得不行,萬物不得不昌,此其道與!...淵淵乎其若海,巍巍乎其若山,終則復始也,運量萬物而不匱。) This idea is repeated again in Uttermost Happiness (至樂): "The sky does nothing, so it may be clear; the earth does nothing so it may be tranquil. Thus, the two inactivities complement each other and everything can be transformed. In haziness and uncertainties, is that not how nothing arrives. In uncertainty and haziness, is that how phenomena arise? The abundance of everything develops from nothing. So it is said that from doing nothing, everything is done. Who among men can attain inaction!" (天無為以之清,地無為以之寧。故兩無為相合,萬物皆化生。芒乎芴乎,而無從出乎!芴乎芒乎,而無有象乎!萬物職職,皆從無為殖。故曰天地無為也而無不為也,人也孰能得無為哉!)

From Chuang Tzu's perspective, there is Tao in everything. The Tao is inside., governs and moves everything. In the Sage's Journey to the North (知北遊), Chuang Tzu says that the Tao "is everywhere, ..in the ants, ...in the millet stalks .. in the glazed earthenware and in shit and piss" ( 惡乎在?莊子曰:無所不在,...在螻蟻...在稊稗...在瓦甓...在屎溺).

If the Tao is in everything and yet cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelt, how can we perceive it? I suppose we can only "experience" it directly, pre-cognitively through our intuition, insight and through actual practice and through silent reflection. Chuang Tzu did not answer it directly. He proceeded indirectly through the via negativa. He would only say where we cannot find the Tao and merely through suggestions. One of the ways to find the Tao is to forget everything which the Confucians taught, Thus he advocated in The Great Master (大宗師) through an imaginary conversation between Confucius (仲尼) and Yen Hui ( 顏回). It is to forget about Li or the Rituals and Music (忘禮樂) and to forget about Benevolence and Justice ( 忘仁義) and the way to do so is through "sitting meditation" or "sitting down and forgetting everything" ( 坐忘) ie."Relaxing the body and the limbs, stopping to use mental skills, leaving form and doing away with wisdom and getting into steps with the omni-connecting Tao ( 墮肢體,黜聰明,離形去知,同於大通). ie. we must avoid relying upon our subjective will and our calculative intelligence and transcend our mental habit of deliberately using only our reason and our intellectual skills and allow our instincts and intuition to take over. We must avoid rigidly following particular pre-determined paths or methods and remain flexible and relaxed at all times and stay free and natural. What he advocates is a kind of transcendental spiritual freedom like playing a kind of game, implied by the use of the word "trip" 遊 in "worry free trip" (逍遙遊). We must therefore forget our "self" and free ourselves from all kinds of unnecessary and unnatural restrictions but still we must be subjected to natural restrictions like objective circumstances and the inherent nature of things. We should seek our freedom from within ourselves and not rely upon what we are told we should or should not do by any external authorities and in particular, social or political authorities.Perhaps the kind of joy that Chuang Tzu was looking for was an esthetic freedom. That certainly can be seen in the way his thoughts are expressed: through allegories, metaphors, parables and imaginative stories. He wish to transcend the boundaries between subjective and objective reality as in the famous story about whether it was Chuang Tzu who was dreaming about the butterfly or whether it as the butterfly who was dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu!