Saturday, February 28, 2015

The celestial fire

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The Bibles of antiquity have but one theme: the incarnation. The vast body of ancient Scripture discoursed on but one subject -- the descent of souls, units of deific Mind, sons of God, into fleshly bodies developed by natural evolution on planets such as ours, therein to undergo an experience by which their continued growth through the ranges and planes of expanding consciousness might be carried forward to ever higher grades of divine being.    
-- Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Esoteric Structure of the Alphabet and Its Hidden Mystical Language. 20.

The world today is pausing to honor the life and work of Leonard Nimoy.

He is of course most closely associated with the character of Spock in the series Star Trek, a series which depicted travel across the stars but which was certainly no less concerned with the exploration of the human condition.

He is also inextricably connected with the concept and act of blessing

Blessing can be accurately said to be an essential part of his identity, one with which he is universally identified and remembered. 

The outpouring of response today to the news that Leonard Nimoy has sprung the bonds of earth to again be among the stars from which we all came has overwhelmingly referenced his blessing "Live long and prosper," which was delivered with his intrinsic dignity and sincerity and accompanied by the famous hand gesture which he introduced during the first season of Star Trek.

It is no secret that this hand gesture represents the Hebrew letter shin and that it has profound connection to the sacred act of blessing -- which has previously been argued within these pages to be the act of evoking the divine spirit which dwells in each being in the universe and indeed which infuses every aspect of the universe itself at all times and at every point.

Mr. Nimoy on many occasions related the story of the deep impression that the act of ritual blessing made upon him as a child, during which this hand gesture was extended as part of the invocation of the divine and the ceremony of blessing (see for example this video clip showing one such explanation he gave).

In seeking to understand more fully this benevolent or beneficent side of Leonard Nimoy -- this profound association with the act of blessing, which he connected to this particular hand gesture embodying this important letter shin and the expression "Live Long and Prosper" -- let us briefly explore just a few important aspects of this symbol.

In the relatively short  treatise entitled The Esoteric Structure of the Alphabet and Its Hidden Mystical Language, Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880 - 1963) says of alphabets that:
along with every other symbolic device of ancient meaning-form, even the alphabet embodied the central structure of all ancient literature, -- the incarnation, the baptism of the fire-soul in and under body-water. [. . .] The celestial fire emanated from primal source as one ray, but soon radiated out in triadic division, and finally reached the deepest heart of matter in a sevenfold segmentation. But in its first stage of emanation it was always pictured as triform. The YOD candle-flame being its type-form, the Hebrews constructed their letter which was to represent the fire-principle with three YODS at the top level, with lines extending downward to a base, on which all three met and were conjoined in one essence. This gives us the great fire-letter SH, shin, -- ש
Kuhn then demonstrates that this letter is used in the Hebrew word for fire itself, which is esh but which he asserts on a linguistic basis is also related to AeSH and ISH, with ish being the word for "man, who embodies this single, double and triple fire" (22). The word ash, he notes, is the byproduct of fire in English, but also the great tree of life Ygdrasil in Norse mythology, the very tree upon which Odin had to hang in order to obtain the symbolic technology of writing, as well as the tree from which mankind was originally fashioned, according to some expressions of Norse myth (the reader may remember that in the past we have addressed the fact that Kuhn, writing in the early part of the 20th century, often used the terms "man" and "mankind" but explicitly stated throughout his writings that what he said applies to both men and women, and that we should not assume that he intended to refer to "men" when he used the term "mankind").

Going further with the significance of the letter shin, Kuhn explains that the Hebrew word for the sun, shemesh, also embodies the concept of spirit-fire plunging down into incarnate water and then rising back to the realm of spirit:
As a globe of fire its nature would be expressed most fittingly by the letter shin (SH), with its threefold candle flame, the three YODS, above; the place of water into which it nightly descends would be indicated by M, and the place of its final return, the empyrean above, by SH again. So the word thus constituted would turn out to be SH-M-SH (shemesh); and this is just what it is. It is the old basic story of divine fire plunging down into water, the universal trope figure under which all operation of spirit in and upon matter was dramatized. 30.
From the foregoing discussion, we can begin to understand why extending one's arm and hand with the form of the Hebrew letter shin, representative of the divine threefold fire which is plunged down into incarnation, can be a gesture of blessing: it is a reminder not to forget the divine fire within, our origin among the empyrean of the stars -- the spirit plane -- and it is a blessing that seeks to elevate the invisible spirit in each of us and in all creation itself, along with all the positive aspects connected to our "higher nature" (the opposite of cursing, which seeks to put the spirit down, to degrade others and make them less in touch with spirit and more under the control of matter and the "lower nature").

Elaborating upon the same line of argument, Kuhn says:
As a symbol designed to depict the immersion of fiery spiritual units of consciousness in their actual baptism in the water of physical bodies, the letter form that dramatizes the actual event, and the letter sound that onomatapoetically mimics the sound of fire plunging into water, this alphabet character shin is certainly most eloquently suggestive. 34.
And here we can begin to draw our analysis back to the well-beloved character whom Leonard Nimoy brought so memorably to life and whose expressions of blessing have become so powerful to a world in such great need of blessing. For Mr. Spock, of course, was a Vulcan, from the planet Vulcan -- named expressly and explicitly for the god of fire: Vulcan, known to the Greeks as Hephaestos (and who, by the way, was not only the god of fire but was also cast down to earth at one point by Zeus).


Not likely. Perhaps a manifestation of the benevolent synchronicity operating within a conscious universe, but such a connection between the hand gesture now so inextricably associated with Mr. Spock and the planet for whom his very people are named can hardly be written off as meaningless.

And, we can go even further. For, as countless previous posts have explained, the concept of the plunge into incarnation was represented in ancient Egyptian myth by the casting down of the Djed column -- where the divine spark was submerged in matter, forgotten and hidden. A major part of our work in this incarnate life was seen to be the raising up of the Djed column, which is to say the remembrance of the divine fire, the reconnection and elevation of the spirit and the elevation of the "higher aspects and impulses" of our being -- in short, all the calling forth of benevolent spirit associated with the concept of blessing!

Now, one whole series of previous posts explored the fact that the ancient Egyptian Cross of Life, the ANKH, was absolutely symbolic of this idea of raising the Djed column, elevating the spirit, and blessing (and, in fact, ancient Ankhs were often depicted as incorporating the symbolism of the Djed column in their vertical pillar). See for example "Scarab, Ankh and Djed." 

This same vitally-important symbolism of the raising of the Djed column can be seen operating in both the Old and New Testaments, in the symbol of the cross in the New Testament, for example, and of the lifting up of the brasen serpent by Moses upon a staff in the Old Testament. 

Now, you may have caught the fact that the Ankh-Cross itself was a symbol of life, a symbol of the giving of life, and thus a powerful symbol of blessing. This connects directly to the words of blessing which Spock -- and Leonard Nimoy -- would pronounce and with which he is so closely connected: "Live long and prosper."

Two previous posts have explored at some length the amazing number of words which Alvin Boyd Kuhn believed could be linguistically and conceptually related to this powerful concept through the root sound of the ancient word Ankh -- see "The Name of the Ankh" and "The Name of the Ankh Continued: Kundalini around the world."

Now, what would happen if we combine the fire-symbol of the letter shin with the word Ankh itself? Alvin Boyd Kuhn has anticipated just such a question, and in fact he refers back to the earlier independent scholar Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907), who apparently also explored this avenue of thought:
Massey traces even the great name of mystery, the sphinx, from this ANKH stem, preceded by the demonstrative adjective P (this, the, that) and the starting S, thus: S-P-ANKH. Massey was well versed in the abstrusities of the hieroglyphics and his surmise on this is as good as that of others. The word thus composed would mean "the beginning of the process of linking spirit and matter," which indeed is the sphinx-riddle of the creation. The sphinx image does conjoin the head of man, spirit, with the body of the animal, lion, representing matter. It is precisely such values and realities that the sages of antiquity dealt with and in precisely this manner of subtle indirection. When will modern scholarship come to terms with this recognition! 38.
Now, this line of argument is most incredible, because in the above passage we practically have the name of Spock himself. Look at the term S-P-ANKH which Kuhn, following Massey, argues to be the linguistic and symbolic and esoteric origin of the word sphinx, and you will immediately perceive that if we emphasize the "velar fricative" sound of the KH (which became the voiceless velar fricative sound indicated by the letter "x" in the word sphinx) it will automatically de-emphasize the preceding sound of the "n" and give us rather directly the name of Spock!

Now, this is a rather incredible development, and the reader can be excused for exclaiming at this point that there is just no way that they were thinking of the esoteric origins of the word sphinx and S-P-ANKH when they came up with the character-name Spock!

And yet, we do not have to argue that "they" were thinking along these lines at all -- it might have been "the universe" that created this unbelievable synchronicity, independent of conscious human awareness, acting through creative human conduits.

But, it is most remarkable to note that one of the other extremely distinctive characteristics of Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series is his constant effort to present a dignified expression of calm, composed gravitas, almost never showing emotion and especially not grinning or laughing or smiling (except on very rare occasions): what can only be described as a most sphinx-like characteristic!

And so, we see that Leonard Nimoy and his blessing-speaking character Mr. Spock connect with us on a profound level, and impart to us wisdom which stretches back to a very ancient source. 

When Mr. Nimoy held up his hand in that symbol of shin, he was blessing. He was silently saying (if I may paraphrase, or interpret the symbolic content discussed above): "You are divine fire -- you have an inner spark -- you, and everyone you meet, contain this spirit-fire submerged in water, so to speak, plunged into matter, but you must not forget where you come from -- you come in a real sense from the stars -- you come from the realm of spirit, and you can remember that and elevate that -- Blessings."

It is an expression of reminder, of recognition, of elevation of the spirit and consciousness, and of blessing which is very much analogous to the gesture and greeting contained in Namaste.

And now, Leonard Nimoy has crossed over this plunge into water, this crossing of the Red Sea which is symbolic of our incarnation in this body. He has left us with these benevolent and beneficent blessings and teachings, beautifully and elegantly expressed. And he goes to be among the stars, the realm the ancient wisdom teachings of the world depicted as the realm of the stars.

We can all agree that he will not find that journey to be one with which he is unfamiliar or for which he is unprepared.

Peace and blessings.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Bodhidharma, Shen Guang, and the Shaolin Temple

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The historicity of many aspects of the famous Shaolin Temple* of China can be, and has been, a subject for study and debate.

As with many such debates, particularly those in which deep reverence or personal beliefs are involved, examination of this subject can sometimes become contentious.

Without entering directly into the "deep water" of such disputes or debates, we can at least agree that the tradition of the Shaolin Temple is itself indisputably connected with two very important traditions: Ch'an Buddhism (which is often spelled Chan Buddhism, and which is the direct predecessor of Zen Buddhism in Japan), and the martial arts.

Previous posts have explored the importance of the connection between these two, in that training in the use of force can cause us to fall into the error of "turning a person into a thing" (in the words of Simone Weil in her famous 1940 essay on The Iliad: or the Poem of Force), but meditation upon the spiritual content and value of every being we encounter and cultivation of the attitude of blessing others and wishing to see their spirit elevated has the exact opposite tendency and acts as a counterbalance, with the goal that what could be misused to "lower spiritual awareness in one's self and in others" (as engaging in the use of force in ways that violate the rights of others will inevitably do) is instead transformed into a practice which "elevates spiritual awareness in one's self and in others" (by reducing the practitioner's need to use force inappropriately, while enabling him or her to use force to protect one's self or others if necessary and thus prevent violence). 

Through this focus on spirit and blessing, the martial arts are (ideally) transformed into a spiritually uplifting discipline analogous to yoga and other practices designed to elevate spiritual awareness and bless and regenerate the world.

I would argue that the emphasis on the invisible world of spirit is coded into the traditions of Shaolin Temple through references to the celestial realm, used throughout the world to convey deep teachings regarding the spiritual component of human existence and of the universe in which we live, and their dual material and spiritual composition. 

For example, precessional numbers such as 72 and 108 are deeply embedded in numerous Chinese martial arts, and in the traditions of the Shaolin Temple. For example, Shi Yan Ming -- who grew up in the Shaolin lineage --  has written about the fact that the Shaolin Temple traditionally contained 72 rooms or chambers. Other traditions assert that in order to graduate as a Shaolin monk, a candidate had to pass through an elaborate hall containing 108 mechanical dummies which would each launch a different unexpected attack upon the candidate at a different point on the journey down the hall.

Some might argue that the incorporation of these numbers, 72 and 108, do not necessarily indicate an esoteric celestial aspect to these traditions. They might argue that, although these same numbers are found in the sacred texts and rituals of India, or in the dimensions of the pyramids at Giza in Egypt and in Egyptian myth, or in the Norse sagas, their presence in China could be attributed to mere coincidence, and that since those ancient cultures are separated by such vast distances, the use of 72 and 108 in China might be referring to something else entirely.

However, I believe there are additional very powerful reasons to believe that the very same celestial codes operating in the myths and traditions of cultures such as ancient Egypt or ancient India (or across the oceans in the dimensions of the monuments in Central and South America) can be shown to be operating in the esoteric traditions of Chan Buddhism as well, and that the conclusion that these numbers are a celestial and hence a spiritual code is well-founded.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The ancient connection between Chan Buddhism and the practice of martial arts as a form of spiritual elevation and blessing can be traced directly back to the texts and traditions surrounding the figure of Bodhidharma, also called Da Mo in China, who according to tradition brought both to China.

Stories of the life of Da Mo can be found in early texts, most notably in the text known as the Ching-te Chuan Teng-lu (ways of spelling this text in English vary), or the "Transmission of the Lamp," which is itself a collection of various earlier traditions regarding Da Mo. The expression "Transmission of the Lamp" refers to the passing down of dharma or the ineffable teachings of Chan, which supposedly originated with Da Mo. 

Da Mo is often said to have lived between AD 470 and AD 532 (or 528). The Chuan Teng-lu was collected later, around the year AD 1000. See for some discussion of the compilation of the Chuan Teng-lu page 155 in this text entitled Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts.

In the account of Da Mo given in the text itself (for instance, beginning on page 150 of this translation), we read the famous story of the transmission of the dharma from Da Mo to his first disciple, Shen Guang, in which Da Mo knelt motionless in meditation (in some accounts for nine full years), while Shen Guang stood guard over him in hopes of being noticed:
Staying at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song, there he sat in meditation facing a wall, a whole day in silence. People couldn't understand it so they called him 'the wall-gazing Brahmin'. At that time there was a monk named Shenguang who was deeply learned and had lived for a long time near Luoyang by the Rivers Yi and Luo. A scholar well read in many books, he could discourse eloquently on the Dark Learning. Sighing frequently, he would say, 'The teachings of Confucius and Laozi take rituals as the Practice and customs as the Rule, while in the books of Zhangzi and The Changes the wonderful principle is still inexhaustible. Now I have heard that a great master, Damo (Bodhidharma), is residing at Shaolin. I must pay a visit to this peerless sage living not so far distant.' Then he went, visiting morning and evening for instruction. Master Damo was always sitting in a dignified posture facing a wall and so Guang heard no teachings nor did he receive any encouragement. Then Guang thought to himself, 'Men of old, on searching the Way, broke their bones to extract the marrow, let their blood flow to help the starving, spread hairs on muddy roads [to allow people to pass], or jumped off cliffs to feed a tiger. In days of old it was still like this, now what kind of man am I?' 150.
Finally, after a great snow fell and Shen Guang still stood motionless guarding Da Mo, the master spoke to Shen Guang and asked what he wanted. In some versions of the story, Shen Guang hurls a large block of snow and ice into the cave or chamber in which Da Mo was meditating, in order to get his attention. In any case, Shen Guang finally pulls out his sword and cuts off his own left arm in order to demonstrate his tremendous devotion and desire to learn what Da Mo has to show him (in some versions, Da Mo says he will only teach Shen Guang when red snow begins to fall from the sky, and so Shen Guang waves his own severed arm around his head and Da Mo finally relents and decides to take on this devoted disciple, who afterwards took on the name Hui-k'o). 

You can read some of the other aspects of this story, and the other adventures attributed to Da Mo and Shen Guang, in the account here on Shi Yan Ming's website, as well as in other texts in books or on the web, such as the version given in Thomas Hoover's 1980 book The Zen Experience, available on the web here through Project Gutenberg. See pages 28 and following of that online file.

Concerned readers can be comforted by the fact that I personally believe no arms were literally severed and waved around anyone's head in order to pass on the teachings of Chan Buddhism in the time of Da Mo and Shen Guang, but believe that this story -- like so many other sacred spiritual traditions around the globe -- can be convincingly demonstrated to be based squarely upon celestial metaphor, as are many of the other incidents and episodes in the traditional account of Da Mo.

The fact that this story is probably not literal is indicated by some of the other traditions surrounding the kneeling meditation of Da Mo, such as the detail that he remained in the kneeling meditation for nine full years without moving, facing the wall of the cave, until his image was actually transferred to the wall itself. Another aspect of the tradition (cited in Thomas Hoover's book above) states that when his eyelids became heavy and he felt he might be drifting off to sleep, Da Mo ripped off his own eyelids to continue his meditation. And another aspect of the story has him kneeling there so long that his legs actually fall off. 

Clearly, these aspects of the story can probably not be taken literally, and I don't believe the severing of Shen Guang's arm should be, either.  

In fact, I believe that familiarity with the constellations who take on similar roles in other myths and stories around the world will immediately suggest the probable celestial identities of both Da Mo (who kneels, meditating, endlessly until his very image or shadow is transferred to the cave wall) and Shen Guang (who stands silently guarding Da Mo, until at last in desperation he cuts off his own arm and waves it around to make the snow red and prove his devotion).

The diagram below shows the important constellation of Bootes, whom we have met in numerous other myths (see this index of stars and constellations and blog posts which discuss them). As you can see, the outline of Bootes resembles a kneeling figure -- and in fact the tiny "leg" which is drawn in this outline based on the system suggested by H.A. Rey is very faint, and the stars themselves could alternately be envisioned as a robed, kneeling figure with a bald head, as Da Mo is often drawn in art stretching back centuries.

Above the kneeling figure stands the vigilant figure of Shen Guang, played in this case by the celestial actor of the constellation Hercules, who appears to be brandishing an enormous sword, in his right hand (which is probably why it is his left arm that he cuts off in the story):

As for the bloody arm itself, I believe a good case can be made for the constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair, in the role of the bloody arm. It consists of a vertical line between its two brightest stars, and then a myriad of "droplets" fanning out from one end of the vertical line (this constellation is described on pages 36 and 37 of H. A. Rey's essential book on the stars and constellations, The Stars: A New Way to See Them). In this case, it appears that the bloody arm is being waved right in front of Da Mo, in order to really get his attention.

There are, in fact, many other clues in the traditions of Da Mo which indicate to me that the above interpretation is very likely the correct celestial origin of the Da Mo story. One of the most well-known and oft-depicted episodes in his life is Da Mo's famous crossing of a wide river upon a broken reed, which is given to him in most accounts by an old woman at the near side of the river before he ventures across on the unlikely reed. 

As can be seen from the diagram above, the "bloody arm" in this case probably represents the broken reed in that aspect of Da Mo's mission, and the woman who provides the reed to him for this occasion is none other than Virgo, who can be seen with her arm outstretched, giving the reed to Bodhidharma for his crossing. 

Another episode from the story of Da Mo and Shen Guang has the impertinent Shen Guang taking his  won string of Buddhist beads from around his neck and flicking them at Da Mo, knocking out some of Da Mo's teeth in the process (the imperturbable Da Mo acts as though nothing untoward has happened, and walks away). In between Hercules and Bootes is the necklace-shaped constellation known as the Corona Borealis, or the Northern Crown. We saw that it almost certainly represents the gorgeous necklace of Freya in Norse myth, as well as a necklace in a famous Japanese myth about Amaterasu the sun goddess. 

In the star chart above, the Northern Crown is outlined in purple, and marked as a "Sandal (?)." This is because there is yet another tradition about Da Mo, depicting him as carrying a staff over his shoulder with a single sandal hanging from one end of the staff. In The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, we read on page xiv:
In his Transmission of the Lamp, Tao-yuan says that soon after he had transmitted the patriarchship of his lineage to Hui-k'o [that is, Shen Guang], Bodhidharma died in 528 on the fifth day of the tenth month, poisoned by a jealous monk. Tao-hsuan's much earlier biography of Bodhidharma says only that he died on the banks of the Lo River and doesn't mention the date or cause of death. According to Tao-yuah, Bodhidharma's remains were interred near Loyang at Tinglin Temple on Bear Ear Mountain. Tao-yuan adds that three years later an official met Bodhidharma walking in the mountains of Central Asia. He was carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official he was going back to India. Reports of this meeting aroused the curiousity of other monks, who finally agreed to open Bodhidharma's tomb. But inside all they found was a single sandal, and ever since then Bodhidharma has been pictured carrying a staff from which hangs the missing sandal.
If you note from the above diagram that Bootes has a long "pipe" that he seems to be smoking, you can instead imaging this pipe as a staff, and if it continues over his shoulder, then it would be perfectly positioned to imaging that the semi-circular arc of the Northern Crown is the other shoe or sandal hanging from the staff. In fact, the depictions of Bodhidharma's staff often seem to have a "crook" or bent part at the end -- in other words, depicting the staff as shaped somewhat like the pipe of Bootes with its wide end (see here or here or here, for example, and older art depicting him often uses similar symbology). 

So, I believe that the purple arc which functions as the Buddhist beads in the episode in which Shen Guang flicks beads at Da Mo may also function as the single shoe or slipper or sandal in the episode of Da Mo walking the hills with one shoe hanging from his staff after he was supposedly dead and buried.

All of this celestial metaphor within the story of Da Mo and the founding of Chan tradition and of the Shaolin Temple, I believe, serves as an esoteric pointer to the realm of the spiritual. The realm of the stars, for reasons discussed in other posts and in the book The Undying Stars, functions in myth around the world (including the stories in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible) as a pointer to the invisible world of spirit (just as this lower world of earth and water, into which the stars plunge as they sink down in the west, represents the realm of matter and incarnation).

I believe that this clear evidence of celestial metaphor also serves to validate the assertion that the celestial numbers 72 and 108 in many Chinese martial arts originally associated with the Shaolin Temple are serving a similar function (just as they do in so many other myths and sacred traditions around the globe).

And, finally, it points to a very important truth, which the ancient keepers of the traditions of both Chan Buddhism and the martial arts wished to impart to us: that while activities such as physical training and discipline and even the effective use of force may be a very important aspect of our time here in this physical realm of incarnation, we must not forget that we and everyone else we meet are also spiritual beings, and that ultimately our actions should serve to elevate the spiritual aspect of ourselves and others, rather than to put it down. 

Ultimately, these arts are about recognizing who we are, in a world which often seems to do everything possible to keep us from remembering or recognizing the truth.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).
* The characters usually translated "Shaolin" are 少  and mean "small forest."
In Mandarin this is xiăo lín

and in Cantonese it is síu làhm

both of which mean "small forest" (in that order). 

You can see the characters in the image above (top), on the sign posted over the door, although they are written right to left, such that the symbol for "small" is on the right and "forest" is in the middle.
The symbol for "temple" (on the left as you look at the photo on the page) is: