Saturday, March 29, 2008

More Violence in Tibet & An Overview on the Conflict

Both the Washington Post and Time are reporting new violence this morning in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Here is part of the WaPo coverage:

BEIJING, March 29 -- A melee erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Saturday afternoon, despite the presence of hundreds of armed police who have been out in force since deadly riots rocked the city two weeks ago.

The incident occurred as a 15-member delegation of international diplomats was leaving the city after a tightly scripted two-day tour arranged by the Chinese government to show that the city was back under control. The diplomats, including officials from the U.S., Japanese and Australian embassies, apparently did not witness the event.

Although details were sketchy, reports indicated that armed police began massing shortly before 2 p.m. to check the identity papers of people in the area where the March 14 riots started, and Tibetans began running away rather than risk arrest. Security forces surrounded residential areas near the Ramoche and Jokhang temples, while several hundred Tibetans staged a rally, Radio Free Asia reported, citing unnamed witnesses in Lhasa.

One Lhasa resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her friend was shopping at a government store in the area when someone ran in around 2 p.m. saying that another riot had begun. The store manager closed the shop doors, fearing a repeat of the chaos and violence of the previous riot, which left at least 19 people dead. But the manager was forced to reopen the doors when shoppers and employees demanded to leave. In the March 14 riot, five employees huddled on the second floor of a clothing shop were burned alive when their store went up in flames.

The woman ran out to the street but could not flag a taxi or a bus. "Everybody was in a panic," her friend said she told her.

The mobile phone signal in the area had apparently been cut off, so she had no way to call for help. So the woman ran for nearly an hour to reach her home. She told her friend that she had not seen a protest and that the streets were empty.

The Lhasa municipal police sent text messages to residents' mobile phones Saturday evening telling them "currently the social order in our city is nothing abnormal." It said that the security department was carrying out identity checks and that the procedures "caused some frightened citizens whose identification [documents] are not clear to run away," according to a translation from the Chinese provided by the International Campaign for Tibet. The text message also told citizens not to listen to or spread "wild rumors."

The same message was broadcast on the local evening news.

Chinese officials in Lhasa and Beijing could not be reached for immediate comment. Tibetan groups outside China said they learned about the melee from their sources in Lhasa.

"The situation is still volatile," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. "It seems Tibetans are still willing to raise concerns despite the dangers."

Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said, "We understand that according to an eyewitness, it involved hundreds of Tibetans. It was very quickly put down because there was a heavy police presence in the area. It was a peaceful protest."

The government-in-exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, issued a statement from its base in Dharmsala, India, calling the demonstration "massive." "Thousands joined into the protests within no time," it said. "These protests are happening after many days of intense suppression."

Thousands of police poured into Lhasa after the riots, the worst outbreak of violence there in nearly two decades.

The turmoil began March 10 when police broke up a protest led by monks against Chinese rule of the remote Himalayan region. The monks were marking the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese communist rule, led by the Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee. A larger protest the following day was also put down by police, who then confined the monks to their monasteries.

The Chinese government blames the March 14 riots on forces allied with the Dalai Lama, who denies responsibility. The Chinese have condemned reports that they used excessive force to crack down on peaceful protesters, saying that the 19 deaths were caused by the rioters. The government said Saturday that the families of those killed will each receive $28,500.

Police have detained more than 414 people and 289 turned themselves in for participating in the riot, according to Qiangba Puncog, Lhasa's chairman. Among them, 111 have since been released, he told visiting diplomats Friday night, according to the New China News Agency.

Newsvine picked up an AP story about Buddhist activism.

Monk-Led Protests Show Buddhist Activism

Buddhist monks hurling rocks at Chinese in Tibet, or peacefully massing against Myanmar's military, can strike jarring notes.

These scenes run counter to Buddhism's philosophy of shunning politics and embracing even bitter enemies — something the faith has adhered to, with some tumultuous exceptions, through its 2,500-year history.

But political activism and occasional eruptions of violence have become increasingly common in Asia's Buddhist societies as they variously struggle against foreign domination, oppressive regimes, social injustice and environmental destruction.

More monks and nuns are moving out of their monasteries and into slums and rice paddies — and sometimes into streets filled with tear gas and gunfire.

"In modern times, preaching is not enough. Monks must act to improve society, to remove evil," says Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a high-ranking lama.

"There is the responsibility of every individual, monks and lay people, to act for the betterment of society," he told The Associated Press in Dharmsala, India, discussing protests in Tibet this month that were initiated by monks.

In widespread protests over the past three weeks, crimson-robed monks — some charging helmeted troops and throwing rocks — have joined with ordinary citizens who unfurled Tibetan flags and demanded independence from China. Beijing's official death toll from the rioting in Lhasa is 22, but the exiled government of the Dalai Lama says 140 Tibetans were killed there and in Tibetan communities in western China.

Bloodshed also stained last fall's pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar, dubbed the "Saffron Revolution" after the color of the robes of monks who led nonviolent protests against the country's oppressive military regime.

Read the rest of the story.

Finally, Slate explains a little about the Chinese claim on Tibet, and about the origin of Buddhist monks being violent.

Why Does China Care About Tibet?
Plus, when are monks allowed to get violent?

Buddhist monks and other Tibetans began protesting in and around Lhasa on March 10, the anniversary of a major uprising against Chinese rule. Tensions have been flaring in the region ever since, with some protests turning violent. Tibet is a remote, impoverished mountain region with little arable land. Why does China care so much about keeping it?

Nationalism. China invaded Tibet in 1950, but Beijing asserts that its close relationship with the region stretches back to the 13th century, when first Tibet and then China were absorbed into the rapidly expanding Mongol empire. The Great Khanate, or the portion of the empire that contained China, Tibet, and most of East Asia, eventually became known as China's Yuan Dynasty. Throughout the Yuan and the subsequent Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibet remained a subordinate principality of China, though its degree of independence varied over the centuries. When British forces began making inroads into Tibet from India in the early 1900s, the Qing emperors forcefully reasserted their suzerainty over the region.

Soon after, revolutionaries overthrew the Qing emperor—who, being Manchu, was cast as a foreign presence in Han-majority China—and formed a republic. Tibet took the opportunity to assert its independence and, from 1912 to 1950, ruled itself autonomously. However, Tibetan sovereignty was never recognized by China, the United Nations, or any major Western power. Both Sun Yat-sen's Nationalists and their rivals, Mao Zedong's Communists, believed that Tibet remained fundamentally a part of China and felt a strong nationalistic drive to return the country to its Qing-era borders. The 1950 takeover of Tibet by Mao's army was billed as the liberation of the region from the old, semi-feudal system, as well as from imperialist (i.e., British and American) influences. Resentment of the Chinese grew among Tibetans over the following decade, and armed conflicts broke out in various parts of the region. In March 1959, the capital of Lhasa erupted in a full-blown but short-lived revolt, during which the current Dalai Lama fled to India. He has lived there in exile ever since.

There are also strategic and economic motives for China's attachment to Tibet. The region serves as a buffer zone between China on one side and India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on the other. The Himalayan mountain range provides an added level of security as well as a military advantage. Tibet also serves as a crucial water source for China and possesses a significant mining industry. And Beijing has invested billions in Tibet over the past 10 years as part of its wide-ranging economic development plan for Western China.

Bonus Explainer: When are Buddhist monks allowed to get violent? When it's for a compassionate cause. Monks and nuns in Tibet take at least two, and sometimes three, sets of vows that constrain their behavior. For most violations, the penalty is usually a confession that the act was committed. But if a monk were to kill another human being—one of the most serious violations of the Pratimoksha vows—he would be liable to expulsion from the monastery. That being said, there is a tradition in Tibetan mythology that could be used to justify taking violent action against an oppressor. The ninth-century king Langdarma, a follower of the Bön tradition, is popularly believed to have persecuted Buddhists during his reign. A monk assassinated him on the grounds that, by killing Langdarma, the monk was acting compassionately toward the tyrant—taking bad karma upon himself in order to spare the king from accumulating the same through his despotic actions.

It's important to note, however, that the actual extent to which monks were responsible for the violence in Tibet remains unclear. Monks instigated the initial demonstrations, but lay Tibetans may have ratcheted up those protests to riot status.

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It’s Not You, It’s Your Books

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This is a funny essay from the New York Times Book Review -- I can totally relate. In fact, when I used to have to hire people to work for me, two of the questions I asked them was to tell my who their favorite authors were, and what were the last three books they had read.

Knowing what the other person reads is even more important in romance.

It’s Not You, It’s Your Books

Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”

Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused, but it wasn’t even the ideology that did it. I just thought Rand was a hilariously bad writer, and past a certain point I couldn’t hide my amusement.” (Members of, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)

Read the rest of this amusing essay.

Daily Dharma - Shantideva on Non-Reaction

These are the Daily Dharmas from yesterday and today -- both are related so I thought I'd post them together.

Here is yesterday's:

Whenever there is attachment

48. Whenever there is attachment in my mind
and whenever there is the desire to be angry,
I should not do anything nor say anything, But remain like a piece of wood.

49. Whenever I have distracted thoughts, the wish to verbally belittle others,
Feelings of self-importance or self-satisfaction;
When I have the intention to describe the faults of others,
Pretension and the thought to deceive others;

50. Whenever I am eager for praise
Or have the desire to blame others;
Whenever I have the wish to speak harshly and cause dispute;
At (all) such times I should remain like a piece of wood.

51. Whenever I desire material gain, honor or fame;
Whenever I seek attendants or a circle of friends,
And when in my mind I wish to be served;
At (all) these times I should remain like a piece of wood.

52. Whenever I have the wish to decrease or to stop working for others
And the desire to pursue my welfare alone...

53. Whenever I have impatience, laziness, cowardice,
Shamelessness or the desire to talk nonsense;
If thoughts of partiality arise,
At these times too I should remain like a piece of wood.

- Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, trans. by Stephen Batchelor; from Everyday Mind, a Tricycle book edited by Jean Smith.

Today's Dharma quote is a response to this.

Technique of non-reaction

Shantideva…mentions specific instances when it is advisable to remain like a mindless piece of wood. We can do this when our mind is very distracted or when the thought arises to belittle, slander, or abuse others. If pride, haughtiness or the intention to find fault with others arises, we can also remain impassive until our deluded motivation fades. Feeling pretentious, thinking to deceive others and wishing to praise our own qualities, wealth, or possessions are all occasions when it is wise to pretend that we are made out of wood. Whenever we have the desire to blame others, speak harshly or cause disruption we should practice this technique of non-reaction.

- Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Meaningful to Behold; from Everyday Mind, a Tricycle book edited by Jean Smith.

Steve Pavlina - Whatever You Fear, You Must Face

A cool and very useful post from Steve Pavlina on facing our fears.

Here is the key passage -- he's having dinner with friends in the Las Vegas Improvisational Players after having watched their show (he had been a part of the group in 2006).

I thought to myself, This is how human beings are meant to be — happy, alive, and inviting – but the interesting part is how you get there.

What improv players have in common is that they’re all willing to get up on stage, which is something most people are afraid to do. They’re willing to try to be funny without knowing in advance how they’ll do it. They never know what they’ll say or do until they actually find themselves doing it. They can practice, but they can’t really prepare.

Are these people completely unafraid? Were they simply born with no fear of public speaking? In most cases, no. They have the same fears and anxieties everyone else does. It’s common to feel nervous or anxious before a show. Being nervous isn’t a sign of impending failure — it just means you care about your performance. This fear energy sends most people running, but those who get up on the stage learn that fear isn’t really an obstacle. It’s a challenge to be faced.

The reward for facing fear is that you get to be fully alive. When you turn towards your fear, you feel the breath of life blowing straight at you, and it’s very refreshing. You feel awake and energized. It’s not that you become an adrenaline junky. You simply realize that you can’t let fear stand in your way if you want to live your life consciously. Being afraid of something is no excuse for not doing it.

[Emphasis added.] Read the whole post -- it's quite good.

Eddie Vedder and Neil Finn - Take a Walk

Eddie Vedder gets his groove on with Crowded House. Cool song.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Roger Shattuck - Candor & Perversion

Matthew, our fearless leader over at POLYSEMY, recently requested an update on what the staff are reading these days. One of the books I am reading is Roger Shattuck's Candor & Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts. Shattuck died in 2005, but I wish he were still writing -- what he had to say was important for the future of the arts.

This will be a long post because I want to present Shattuck's Nineteen Theses on Literature, a sort of manifesto for studying the classics. All of this was reprinted at the New York Times Book Review when they excerpted the book.

The book itself is a collection of essays loosely grouped into three sections, but the essays really having little to do with each other as far as content is concerned. However, they all argue, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, for a classical liberal arts education.

This is from the introduction to Chapter One, The Nineteen Theses on Literature:

At the close of the twentieth century, we should reasonably expect a liberal education in our high schools, colleges and universities to serve two principal goals. The first goal is to present the historic basis of our complex culture and the political and moral standards that have evolved from it. The second is to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals, and its realities. The first explains and even justifies the status quo. The second questions it. In a democracy, both are necessary.

Those two opposed functions can take place together, almost simultaneously, thanks in great part to a collection of written works that both provide a basis for our Western tradition and challenge it. For instance, we find variations on the dialogue form in Plato, in Montaigne's essays, in Swift's imaginary voyages, and in Dostoevsky's fictional conversations. These supple works do not pronounce; rather, the probe and reflect. The shared reading of such foundational books gives us a basis for finding the principles and the precedents by which we can live together as one country and one culture containing many parts and divisions, many classes and races.

After providing some examples of how the "canon" has adapted and changed over the years -- and agreeing that, with many exceptions (that there are some books everyone should read), we should always be engaged in a discussion of which books constitute the core of the canon -- he then turns his attention to the current state of affairs in the majority of humanities departments.

In recent years, however, other considerations have begun to usurp the place of literary status and quality. It is a simplification, but not a distortion, to refer to two categories of interests that tend to displace literature: politics (including race, class, feminism, minority and cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies) and theory (reliance on a prior methodology or approach by which to read all works). These interests, perfectly legitimate as adjuncts to literature, have become increasingly dominant, specialized, and doctrinaire. Their cumulative effect is to eliminate the very category of literature. Current fashions favoring "interdisciplinary studies" also tend to weaken the basic disciplines of history and literature.

"Nineteen Theses" was written as a response to the attempts to dismiss literature as a central field of study and personal reward.

I would like to point out that he does not wish to do away with the various approaches of politics and theory, but only to return them to their rightful place as adjuncts to the study of literature rather than their current status as the focus of study. When reading a novel (or whatever), we should first focus on the work itself and what it wishes to say, and only later, as a possible aid to understanding, engage in various theoretical approaches that may or may not help us understand the work more clearly. After all, a critical approach that does not elucidate the text itself is useless.

OK then, having presented the introduction, here are the Nineteen Theses on Literature:


Literature in General

I. A real world of material things, sometimes called nature, exists around us. Nature includes us, and we share it imperfectly with one another through perception, action, memory, language, love, and wonder.

II. Material nature has gradually helped shape human behavior and consciousness into patterns we recognize as cultures and as common sense. Across millions of years under a great variety of social behaviors, we have evolved a fairly stable sociogenetic compound we refer to as human nature. Human nature contains an elusive element of freedom: freedom from blind chance and determinism, freedom to choose our actions.

III. There may be more than material nature and human nature. Words like spiritual and transcendent and ineffable may refer to more than mere yearnings. Much around us remains unknown.

IV. Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and human nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.

V. Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings, thoughts, and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.

VI. Works of literature are written by individual authors using an existing language with reference to material nature and human nature. The doctrine known as textuality makes a triple denial of these entities. Textuality denies the existence of the natural world, of literature, and of authors.

VII. No author has a claim to final authority. However, we do well to acknowledge, as all cultures do, sheer seniority. Works that have survived for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand as stiflingly traditional, as part of the status quo, needing above all to be usurped by the modern.

VIII. In order to affirm literature in its full humanist sense, let us eschew the freestanding word text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Rather, let us take advantage of the full range of terms like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like "the text of" a work, and "sacred texts." But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting "text" in every other line of what we say and write.

IX. Like our terrestrial environment, our literary, intellectual, and moral environment needs to be wisely cultivated and protected. We have as many strip miners and clear-cutters operating in the areas of literature, philosophy, and history as we have operating on the planet Earth. You know their names and their schools. Some of them believe that we who devote ourselves to literature and inquiry are an endangered species—and should fade away. We, for our part, are resolved to survive and to flourish.

Interlude—Partially Plagiarized

X. "Our lives are a fierce attempt to find an aspect of this world not open to interpretation" (David Mamet, Kafka's Grave).

XI. In the fullness of time a poet-oracle came forth upon the mountaintop, whence one could see a great distance in all directions. To the innumerable questions put to this fierce yet gentle seer, only two answers have come down to us:

1. "Everything exists in order to end up in a book."

2. "Nothing will survive unless it has been uttered."

XII. To those preparing to be shipwrecked on a desert island, I offer a miniaturized library of world literature that can be memorized in a few days. It consists of 3,001 bulls—not Papal: Irish. Bulls combine succinct style, compacted logic, and a sharp (if blunted) point; for example:

At your age Mozart was dead.
Reader's report to a textbook publisher: "This book does nothing for
the nonreading student."
No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It's too crowded.
We teach what we hope to learn.
Count no man happy till he dies.
Freedom is the absence of choice.
Stop it some more.
I can never kiss her properly. Her face always gets in the way.
He died cured.
Don't go near the water till you've learned to swim.
This book fills a badly needed gap.

XIII. The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.

XIV. Everything has been said. But nobody listens. Therefore it has to be said all over again—only better. In order to say it better, we have to know how it was said before.

XV. A friend in Missouri recently sent me a book-length manuscript. In the past, she has written intense studies of the relation between German and French philosophy as it has influenced literary theory since 1950. In her letter, my friend declared that she has undergone a profound change of heart. She now rejects the reigning schools of literary theory and attacks them in this manuscript. It is time for a more direct and less abstract approach to literature. Would I write an introduction to her book?

My friend's new book vehemently rebuts Heidegger and Adorno, Barthes and Derrida on their own ground. It reads like her earlier books—with all the signs changed. She has without question changed sides; she has not left the battlefield. As before, her discussions do not refer to any primarily literary works. The only authors she mentions from before 1950 are Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

I wrote my friend that I applaud her change of heart. When is she going to change her reading accordingly? I could not write an introduction to a book still transfixed by her earlier theoretical concerns, even though she has joined the other side.

I did not write to my friend that I would like to know the titles of the books she keeps within easy reach around her desk or workstation. Does she still work surrounded by Saussure and Foucault? Or does she keep beside her again now the works she loved as a graduate student: Stendhal and Balzac, George Eliot and Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville?

XVI. In literary study as in everyday life, we have entered the Age of Appliances. More and more scholars and critics write and teach by applying an ideology or a methodology to a cultural "text." This reliance on appliances tends to eliminate the experience and the love of literature.

Literature in Education

XVII. We have brought ourselves to great perplexity about the basic role of education. Should education socialize the young within an existing culture and offer them the basic means to succeed in that culture? Or should education give to the young the means to challenge and overthrow the existing culture, presumably in order to achieve a better life? Here I shall appeal to analogy.

Almost immediately after fertilization, the human embryo sets aside a few cells that are sheltered from the rest of the organism and from the environment. These cells retain a special ability to divide by meiosis into haploid cells needed for sexual reproduction. Our gonads represent the most stable and protected element in the body and are usually able to pass on unchanged to the next generation the genetic material we were born with. In this way, the sins of fathers and mothers during their lifetime are not visited upon their children. Except for radiation and a few diseases, the life we live does not affect our gonads.

No such biological process is built into cultures. But all cultures have discovered something similar—an activity, sometimes developed into an institution, we call education. By education, we pass on to the young the customs, restrictions, discoveries, and wisdom that have afforded survival so far.

There is good reason to maintain that, unlike many other institutions—political, social, and artistic—which may criticize and rebel against the status quo, education should remain primarily a conservative institution, like our gonads. We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia into its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform. The university need not provide the principal home for political, social, and artistic dissidents. The primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage. As the heritage is passed along, both teachers and students will test it, criticize it, and seek to improve it. That healthy modification should not supplant the essential process of transmission.

XVIII. Out of the 1960s and 1970s, one item we should not forget is the counter slogan to relevance. It reads: Curriculum kills. There was great merit in the nineteenth-century ground rule for college programs that specified: no living authors. Students can read them perfectly well on their own. Why invite stuffy old professors to paint contemporary authors over with interpretations and theories? We need scholars in the classroom to help students with the genuine otherness of the past. We need cultivated readers and discriminating critics to deal with contemporary literature. But not in the classroom. Curriculum kills.

XIX. In planning the day-to-day work of education, we shall forever be selecting curricula and programs. In so doing, let us desist from referring to "the canon," or canons or—God save us—canonicity. The term canon was smuggled out of theology into education and literature only a few years ago by those who desperately need something to attack and subvert, something to transgress and deconstruct. Otherwise, what would they do? But they are talking about a figment of their own making. Who knows if Pilgrim's Progress or The Parallel Lives or Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is in the canon? No one. We deal primarily with the curriculum that lies before us in the courses we teach. Here lies our path through knowledge, a path we may choose over and over again, like love in marriage. Our love of literature does not remain the same. Yet its constancy sustains us.

The post at the NYT Book Review also contains Chapter Two: PERPLEXING LESSONS: IS THERE A CORE TRADITION IN THE HUMANITIES?, which is certainly worth the read.

I'm sure some readers will take issue with my support for a classical liberal education in the arts and literature as somehow being conservative, to which all I can say is,"Yep!"

A classics based literature education is not sexist, racist, classist, or any other "ist." It simply recognizes that there are many works that nearly all of us can agree are great, and that these works should be the foundation of an education in the liberal arts. We do not wish to exclude works that are not fully agreed upon, nor do we want to ignore the fact that many fine works were written by those who were not part of the dominant culture, and that those works are also worthy of our attention.

What those of us who support an education in the classics most want is a return to literature as literature, without theory and politics dominating and/or limiting how we many study it and learn from it. That's not too much to ask -- and that's all Roger Shattuck sought with his very eloquent Nineteen Theses.

On Boycotting the Olympics

I'm not sure why the liberals aren't calling for a boycott of this summer's Olympics in China, in reaction to the ongoing oppression and brutality being inflicted on the Tibetans. A country like China is not fit to host an event that is about bringing together diverse nations in the spirit of competition. If I were head of the IOC, I would pull the Olympics from China, find a country that already has the infrastructure to host the games, and reschedule them for next summer.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time knows that I am an ignorant, commie liberal, or at least that's what I've been told in the comments a few times. Still, when it comes to the China issue, I find myself agreeing completely with the conservatives. Why is it that three of the more conservative governments in the West (Germany, France, and Canada) are threatening China with a boycott, but not the more liberal nations? Yeah, the EU, which is fairly liberal, is also making threats, but they are largely controlled by the larger nations, which includes Germany and France.

And in the media, I haven't seen any liberal columnists calling for a boycott, but this morning in The National Review, Jason Lee Steorts makes the case for a boycott of the opening ceremonies as a way of saying, "We are not pleased to be in your nation." That may be the best option available, but it sucks. We should boycott the whole damn thing.

In a more decent world, China would not be allowed to host the Olympics.

This is partly to say that the brutality of the Chinese government is incompatible with the ideal that the Olympics are thought to represent. But it is also to say that no country has a right to the Games. When the IOC chooses a host, it deprives the losers of nothing to which they are entitled. To award is thus to praise. It is to praise the host city’s economic conditions, its tourism infrastructure, the excellence of its swimming pools. But it is not merely to praise in this way, because the Olympics do represent an ideal — of individual achievement, and, by extension, of liberty. To award them is therefore also to praise the host for embodying that ideal. This would be true even if the IOC did not wish its decisions to carry that implication: for it would know all the same that its decisions are so taken. Here we begin to understand why a normally constituted person recoils at the thought of its giving the Games to Pyongyang.

Many normally constituted persons did not recoil when the IOC gave the Olympics to Beijing, and their feeling was not wholly detached from reality: The Chinese government is not, after all, Kim Jong Il. But the lesser evil is evil still, and there is nothing hyperbolic in the use of that word to describe the Chinese Communist Party. The bill of indictment against it is familiar, though one should remember that it comprises much more than the bloodletting, fifty years of it, in Tibet. There is also the persecution of Christians and other religious groups, the laogai system (a Chinese Gulag), the suppression of free speech (grown worse under Hu Jintao). To put the matter schematically, there is the Chinese government’s belief that it may obliterate anybody who opposes its policies.

No one of consequence is calling for an all-out boycott of the Beijing Games. The Dalai Lama himself does not favor this, though he offers no reason for his view. Probably he knows a total boycott would be unpopular. It would “hurt athletes” (true, if hurt here means revoke an opportunity for professional attainment) “without doing much good” (perhaps true if good is defined in terms of outcomes). Meanwhile the tanks roll across Lhasa, and we ask ourselves whether, against that grim backdrop, it is frivolous, or cowardly, or worse, to applaud athletes for running fast.

Each will have his answer to that question. But the answer should depend at least in part on whether it is possible, while still competing in the Games, to deplore the Chinese government’s wickedness.

And that is the force of the argument for boycotting but the opening ceremony. If diplomats and athletes were to walk out, or simply not to attend, this would serve as a denunciation of the Chinese government’s latest outrages in Tibet. It would implicitly revoke the praise that the IOC has bestowed upon the Chinese government. It would be a way of saying: “We will compete here, for we did not choose to compete here. But we are not happy about it. And we want the world to know that, in our opinion, this government is not worthy.” Yes, that is symbolism. But then the implied praise that this symbol is meant to cancel out has itself been conferred symbolically.

Read the rest of the column.

Sherman Alexie - Sonics Death Watch

For those not paying attention, and few outside of Seattle are, the Seattle Sonics NBA basketball team was sold to some guy in Oklahoma City a while back, and now it looks likes he is moving the team out of Seattle. It's a sad truth at the end of a sad season. I remember when the Sonics were challenging for the NBA title -- I actually cared about the NBA back then. I loved going to games.

Sherman Alexie, a big-time basketball fan and devoted Sonics fan, has been documenting his reaction to the impending end of basketball in Seattle in a series of articles for The Stranger. The writing is as funny and crisp as anything he has done (and he is one of my favorite poets and short-story writers). Here are a few of the columns, filled with social and political commentary as much as they are with basketball.

Sonics Death Watch

Vol. I Before Sonics games, I listen to the pregame broadcast on KTTH 770. But if I turn on the radio early, I sometimes hear the right-wing insanity of Michael Savage, who believes that the U.S. should build a fence along key points of the Mexican border. Whenever I imagine that epic fence, I also imagine a pair of border agents, one with binoculars, standing on a nearby bluff.

"Hey, man, do you see anything?"

"Yeah, a bunch of Mexicans. They're carrying something."

"What is it?"

"A big ladder."

Jesus, there are certain murderous right wingers who believe that border fence should be electrified. Double Jesus, I have to listen to their right-wing radio station in order to hear my beloved Sonics lose again. Triple Jesus, I am a leftist bastard who hopes that some wealthy right-wing local bastards buy the Sonics from those right-wing Oklahoma bastards and keep the team in Seattle. Exponential Jesus, I am an Indian boy who prays that white politicians will save him by saving the sport he loves. Instead of Hangs-Around-the-Fort, I am Hangs-Around-City-Hall.

I just hope massive contradictions don't cause cancer.

* * * * *

Sonics Death Watch

Vol. V Professional basketball fans, by choice and circumstance, celebrate black masculinity. But certain fans celebrate only a less-threatening black masculinity. When it comes to basketball, those fans only admire black hoopsters who play the game "the right way."

And, yes, I too love the pick-and-roll, help defense, and the midrange jump shot. If this were poetry, we'd refer to those basics as rhyme and meter.

But in the professional game, the best players also create in free verse. They are improvisational geniuses. They play beyond the boundaries of the game. They are dangerous.

If Barack Hussein Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination, we're going to find out what kind of hoopster poet he is. And I refer to Obama by his full name because the right-wingers will create campaign ads that fill our airwaves with that scary middle name. They'll show blurry photos of Muslim men, potential terrorists, who may have once shared a classroom with Obama. Netflix will have to order 10,000 more copies of The Manchurian Candidate to fill the requests of conservative cinemaniacs.

White liberals love Obama because he's not dangerous; white conservatives want to make him dangerous. Let's see who wins.

* * * * *

Sonics Death Watch

Vol. XI Recently, during a home game against Phoenix, the Suns fans outnumbered Sonics fans. There were thousands of desert-orange T-shirts and replica jerseys in KeyArena.

"My only consolation," I said to my friend sitting beside me, "is that orange is a bad color on almost everybody."

But there was a pretty Suns fan sitting in front of us who looked great in orange. She loudly cheered for Steve Nash, the point guard from Victoria, BC.

"Hey," I asked her. "Are you Canadian?"

"Yes," she said. "Are you a Sonics fan?"

With all the tenderness and trepidation in her voice, she might as well have asked me if I had scrotum cancer.

"Last 12 years, I've seen about 300 Sonics game in person," I said.

"Do you think they're really going to Oklahoma?" she asked.

She wanted an honest answer. And for the first time, I honestly answer that particular question.

"Yes," I said. "They're gone."

She looked at my friend sitting beside me. He was a Sonics ball boy in their inaugural year of 1967.

"Yes," my friend said to her. "I think I'm watching my last Sonics game."

"I'm sorry," she said. She was lovely and compassionate. She understood our pain.

Thank you, O, thank you, Canada.

You can find all eleven columns here.

Satire: Fearmongers, Warmongers Gather For Annual Mongering Conference

The Onion reports . . . .

Fearmongers, Warmongers Gather For Annual Mongering Conference

March 28, 2008 | Issue 44•13

WASHINGTON—Approximately 550 mongers in the fields of war, hate, and fear mongered together at the Washington D.C. Marriott last week as part of the 34th annual mongering conference. According an itinerary released by the National Mongering Council, the three-day summit featured monger-building activities from 9 a.m. to noon, optional night-mongering seminars, and three meals a day to promote social mongering. "This is the greatest collection of mongering minds in our generation, making the conference a prime target for any number of horrific biological and terrorist attacks," fearmonger Gerald Sachs mongered. "Of course, with the current political and social climate, the main question is whether next year will be anywhere near as mongerly." None† in attendance could confirm whether they would be present at next week's fish- and whoremongering conference in El Paso, TX.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Daily Dharma: Being Mindful of Emotion

Today's Daily Dharma from Tricycle offers a suggestion on how to begin to be more mindful of our emotions.

Being mindful of emotion

It’s impossible to take note of your mind all of the time. You would tie yourself up in knots and run off the road. Instead of going to an extreme, begin by concentrating on one particular emotion in yourself. Choose the emotion that bothers you the most, or the one that is most prominent in you...

For many people, anger is a good starting point because it is easily noticed and dissolves faster than most other emotions. Once you begin to watch your anger, you will make an interesting discovery. You will find that as soon as you know you are angry, your anger will melt away by itself. It is very important that you watch without likes or dislikes. The more you are able to look at your own anger without making judgments, without being critical, the more easily the anger will dissipate.

- Thynn Thynn, Living Meditation, Living Insight; from Everyday Mind, a Tricycle book edited by Jean Smith.

Meditation Can Make Us More Compassionate

Buddhists have known that meditation increases compassion and empathy for about 2,500 years, but neuroscience has now shown how it happens, as if that makes it more real or legitimate.

I think there is some risk in neuroscience pinning down specific meditation states into physical structures in the brain. It feels very reductionist to me, and it will perpetuate the myth that mind is just a bio-chemical function of the brain. That doesn't really change anything about how effective meditation is, but it will be that much harder to revise our understanding the true nature of the mind.

The study looked at what most of us know as loving-kindness meditation (see here or here), and did fMRI scans to see what is happening in the brain, as well as how it changes behavior in those doing the meditation.

Both Scientific American Mind and Medical News Today have posted articles on the research.

From SciAm Mind:

Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate

Like athletes or musicians, people who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one's family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy.

"There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence," says Antoine Lutz, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the study. "That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion."

Lutz and his colleagues, including neuroscientist Richard Davidson, director of the university's Waisman Center for Brain Imaging where the study was conducted, took fMRI scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators as well as 16 others who had started with no meditation experience but received cursory training before they carried out a series of tests. During these tests, the researchers measured the flow of blood in the brains of both the veterans (some of them Tibetan monks) and the American novices as the subjects did or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while being subjected to various sounds with positive and negative connotations.

When engaged in compassionate meditation, the brain region known as the insula burst into action when the expert meditators heard the sound of a woman in distress. (The insula—a part of the limbic system—has been associated with the visceral feeling of emotion, a key part of empathizing with another's emotional state.)

And when these experts heard the female screams or the sound of a baby laughing, their brains showed more activity than the novices in areas like the right temporal-parietal juncture, which plays a role in understanding another's emotion.

"The way you are going to understand the emotion of someone else is by somehow simulating, experiencing the emotion. It makes sense that we found some activation of the brain region which is critical for the experience of an emotion," Lutz says. Similarly, "sometimes you can understand someone but not necessarily experience the emotion … it makes sense that you get activation in a brain region that is more contemplative."

Although the research does not prove that compassion can be learned, it does suggest that possibility—and that could have implications for treating a range of issues. "Can this type of training be used for depression?" Lutz asks. "Another question is whether this form of mental training and empathy can have an impact for education. We don't know yet."

The researchers have already begun a long-term study to see if and how the brain can be trained as well as to compare how different forms of meditation, such as simple concentration versus focusing on compassion, affect the brain differently. In the meantime, compassionate meditation is as simple as visualizing someone you care about, holding that feeling of loving kindness in your mind, and then extending it to others—even people you don't like.

"It primes the mind for some form of readiness to act with compassion or loving kindness," Lutz adds. "You can build on this very basic, natural feeling that you have for close relatives and extend that to a stranger."

A Video Game that Is Good for the Mind

On NPR's Marketplace yesterday, they did a feature on a video game that helps raise various indicators of happiness (self esteem, self-confidence) and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol by up to 17%. Pretty dang cool.

The story made it onto Marketplace because industry leader Electronic Arts wants to buy the smaller company, Take Two, for two billion dollars -- yes, BILLION.

Here is some of the story -- you can listen to it at the link above. You can play a demo of Mind Habits (that's the game's name) at their website and/or download the full version for $19.95.

SEAN COLE: About five years ago, a McGill psychology professor named Mark Baldwin was chewing on a problem with his grad students. They knew that stress was often a reaction to social threat, insecure thoughts like "Are they laughing at me?"

MARK BALDWIN: And turns out a lot of these thought processes happen in a split second.

So, how do you change thought processes that happen in a split second?

BALDWIN: And we thought of the game Tetris, you know, where you fit the blocks into the spaces.

It's hard at first, but after a while your brain gets trained.

BALDWIN: So we thought, "OK, can we design a video game that will help people practice positive patterns of thought?"

The game was basic in the beginning, 16 faces in a grid.

BALDWIN: Fifteen of them are scowling at you and they're quite critical and rejecting. One of them is smiling warmly and you just had to find the one smiling face over and over and over again.

They tested it out on a bunch of telemarketers.

BALDWIN: We needed to find a group that was very stressed and, you know, I always hang up on telemarketers frankly, personally, so they're dealing with a lot of rejection all day long.

But after playing the game five minutes a day for a week, something incredible happened. The level of cortisol, or the stress hormone, in their bodies had dropped by 17 percent.

BALDWIN: Even more remarkable is the employees playing the game were rated as more self-confident and then moreover they actually made more sales.

And that's pretty much how MindHabits was born. The commercial version is a lot more complicated, much more of a game. The faces appear in a series of flipping boxes now, and there are more smiling ones. The package comes with a few other games, too. One of them is supposed to make you feel good about yourself by flashing a smiling picture when you click on your name. There's a word search game with words are like "compassion" and "friend." Baldwin says just thinking about those concepts can make you feel better. You can play the demo version for free on the MindHabits Web site, or download the full version for $19.99.

TED Talk: Christopher deCharms: Looking Inside the Brain in Real Time

A very interesting, albeit short, TED Talk on the development of a real-time fMRI that will allow us to see how the brain is functioning during various emotional and/or intellectual states. He leaves us with more questions than answers, which might be a good thing.

Interestingly enough, he is investigating Buddhist psychology from the perspective of a neuroscientist (see below).

Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demos an amazing new way to use fMRI to show brain activity while it is happening -- emotion, body movement, pain. (In other words, you can literally see how you feel.) The applications for real-time fMRIs start with chronic pain control and range into the realm of science fiction, but this technology is very real.

About Christopher deCharms:

Neuroscientist Christopher deCharms is helping to develop a new kind of MRI that allows doctor and patient to look inside the brain in real time -- to see visual representations of brain processes as they happen. With his company Omneuron, deCharms has developed technology they call rtfMRI, for "real-time functional MRI" -- which is exactly what it sounds like. You move your arm, your brain lights up. You feel pain, your brain lights up.

How could we use the ability to see our brains in action? For a start, to help treat chronic pain with a kind of biofeedback; being able to visualize pain can help patients control it. And longer-term uses boggle the mind. Ours is the first generation, he believes, to be able to train and build our minds as systematically as a weightlifter builds a muscle. What will we do with this?

deCharms is also the author of the book Two Views of Mind, studying Buddhist theories of perception from a neuroscientist's perspective.

World Changing - The Politics of Optimism

A nice post over at World Changing.

The Politics of Optimism

I've written before about my belief that in times like these, optimism is a powerful political act. As I put it in the book,
Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.

Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

Recently, though, I've been getting asked a lot how it's possible to remain optimistic when the news is so bad, and progress on problems like climate change or global poverty seems hopeless slow. These questions started me thinking about why the tone of coverage and debate about the big issues we face is so unrelentingly grim.

Some of that darkness comes, undoubtedly, from legitimate despair: from solastalgia about the loss of the natural world or from compassion for the horrible suffering of the millions whom our global economy has left behind. Some of it is the cynicism of disappointed idealists, folks who've seen so much of the underside of human nature that they've abandoned hope. Some is the narrative lure of collapse.

But I've come more and more to think that the particular dynamic we see in today's media and political debates, in both North America and Europe, springs also from politics. That its political nature goes largely unrecognized, even by some of that politics' fiercest partisans, may be merely a matter unexamined assumptions.

Here's what I see that politics being:

1) An explicit statement that we are incapable of actually solving the planet's most pressing problems, and that to consider doing so is "unrealistic."

2) A mostly unstated assumption that the reason embracing bold solutions is unrealistic is because those solutions involve unbearable costs.

3) A rarely voiced belief that "realism" ought best to be defined as "in the interests of those doing well today," and that "unbearable costs" ought best to be defined as "any meaningful change in circumstances whatsoever."

4) A widely practiced stance that, therefore, expressions of concern and extremely modest, almost symbolic, small steps and half measures are the appropriate course of action.

Though often combined with the politics of fear, this political stance might better be thought of as "the politics of impossibility." (It's as if Eeyore were running the public debate.)

Consider, instead, the politics of optimism:

1) That realism ought best to be defined as "within our capacity" and "necessary."

2) That we have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems, and the magnitude of the consequences of failure (both for ourselves and generations to come) demands that we act immediately.

3) That it is possible to act in such a way that the prospects of most people on the planet are improved. While certain costs will be incurred, the returns on those investments will be quite attractive, not only in ecological stability, international security and human well-being, but in terms of plain old economic prosperity. These solutions will make the future better than the present for the almost everyone, and greatly improve the lots of our children and grandchildren.

4) Therefore, defining our win scenarios, imagining the kind of future we want to create, describing the solutions that will make building that future possible, and publicly committing ourselves to success are the appropriate course of action.

Nothing about the politics of optimism needs to be naive. We can understand that people are fallible, mostly self-motivated and sometimes even mistaken about what's in their own best interests. We can stress the importance of informed decision-making, demand rigor and note uncertainty. We can recognize the massive differentials in power and wealth in our society and be clear-headed about the difficulty of opposing those whose power and wealth is tied to planetary destruction. We can anticipate setbacks and failures, disappointments and betrayals. We can expect corruption and demand transparency. We can freely admit the profound difficulty of the work yet to be done, even the possibility of total failure.

Read the rest.

This sounds good to me -- I don't think I am alone in having grown more than weary with the politics of fear.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sacred Sex in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and Beyond

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest and most influential poems in the history of literature. It's also one of my favorite hero myths.

I was reading Jenny Wade's 2004 book, Transcendent Sex, which quotes a small passage from this poem, and became interested in looking at her view that this might be the oldest recorded example of the transformative power of sexuality, which it does seem to be. But I am also interested in what this epic poem might have to say to us today.

Here is the full passage describing Enkidu's transformation through sex with a sacred harlot, or Hierodule in the text (her name was Shamhat).

Gilgamesh said:
'Trapper, return,
Take a priestess, child of pleasure -
When he goes to the wells
He will embrace the priestess
And the wild beasts will reject him.'
Then returned with the hierodule
And three days to the drinking hole,
There sat down
Hierodule facing the trapper,
Waiting for the game.
First day, nothing.
Second day, nothing.
Third day, yes.
The herds came to drink, and Enkidu -
Glad for the water were the small wild beasts,
And Enkidu was glad for the water -
He of the gazelles and wild grass,
Born in the hills.
The priestess saw this man
Wild from the hills.
'There, woman,'the trapper,
'Bare your breasts now;
This is he,
Have no shame, delay not,
Welcome his love,
Let him see you naked,
Let him possess your body.
As he approaches, take off your clothes,
Lie with him, teach him,
The savage, your art of woman,
For as he loves you, then
The wild beasts, his companions,
They will reject him.'
She had no shame for this,
Made herself naked
Welcomed his eagerness
Incited him to love,
Taught the woman's art.
Six days, seven nights,
That time lying together,
Enkidu had forgotten his home
Had forgotten the hills
After that time he was satisfied.
Then he went back to the wild beasts -
But the gazelles saw him and ran,
The wild beasts saw him and ran.
Enkidu would follow, but weak,
His strength gone through woman;
Wisdom was in him,
Thoughts in his ear - a man's.
So he returned to the priestess.
At her feet he listened intently
'You have wisdom, Enkidu.
Now you are as a god.

For six days and seven nights (an allusion to the transit or initiation of the seven planets in Sumerian culture), Enkidu made love with the Hierodule. Afterward he is no longer a beast-man covered in fur and at home among the wild animals - he is now part God and part man, nearly the equal of Gilgamesh who is two-thirds God and one-third human.

Here is one take on this episode in the poem:

It is remarkable that Shamhat shows Enkidu exactly what Gilgamesh was unable to see: that lovemaking is the most sacred act of being human and in connection, and that it transforms us in all levels. To surrender to love is to be filled up by the Universe. Gilgamesh sends a love priestess to teach Enkidu this most precious aspect of a fully mature and integrated human, the art of connecting with others at the deepest levels, but somehow the young king of Uruk was too full of himself to understand the depth and implications of the gift he sent to Enkidu.

Sexual expression -- as transformative experience -- can recreate a beast into a God-man, at least in the poem. Besides being the sacred prostitute, Shamhat is also the servant of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. She serves Enkidu as the initiator of sexual love, but also of his deeper self. Through sexuality, he becomes the God-man he is meant to be.

Here is Wade's definition of what constitutes "transcendent" sex:

Three factors distinguish transcendent sex from the most intense "regular" sex:

  • Transcendent sex involves altered states that seem to come out of nowhere and overcome one or both lovers. The term “transcendent sex” comes from the sense of transcending (going beyond or breaking through) the usual sense of space, time or self that constitute normal, waking consciousness. For instance, a person might suddenly be out of body, hovering over the bed, or traveling back in time to a past life, or expanding to include the consciousness of all living creatures.
  • In transcendent sex, there is a pervasive sense that these events participate in, or come from, a supernatural force, which people usually associate with Spirit, however understood. Whether it’s stepping into another reality, seeing visions, being possessed by a power animal or imploding into the utter emptiness of the Void, most people attribute a numinous quality to the events, even if they consider themselves atheists or agnostics. They feel they have been given a glimpse of the Greater Reality, the Absolute, Truth, God.
  • Transcendent sex involves relationship, even if it occurs when a person seems to be alone. It is rooted in the ground created by the lovers, even when one person is taken so far beyond reality that the partner and the lovemaking recede into infinity. Or, in some cases, even when the partner is not human or appears not to be "real" in the ordinary sense.

In real life we can have a state experience very similar to Enkidu's, one in which we taste the divinity always waiting within us and be transformed by it (as described above), but we are not not likely to enjoy the total transformation he did. Still, we can become more of who we are meant to be, more in touch with the Spirit that animates our flesh.

Like using entheogens, substances which open the doors of perception, we can get a taste of higher order state experiences (transitory experiences) through sexual sharing, which can then motivate us to take up a spiritual practice that can help us evolve into that stage of being (an enduring structure of consciousness). This is crucial -- having a state experience might make us feel as though we have suddenly evolved, but it doesn't fundamentally change our center of gravity developmentally. We need to take up some kind of practice to stabilize the state, eventually, as a stage.

These experiences can also be very unsettling for those who are not familiar with alternate states of perception. Imagine glimpsing satori without preparation or explanation of what is happening, and to do so while fully naked with another person. This is from Jenny Wade's wesbite for the book:

[M]any transcendent episodes can be extremely disturbing. People can experience things that are overwhelmingly frightening, creepy, or sad. Altered states of any kind have the power to be destabilizing, especially for people who are not expecting them (this is especially true during sex) and for people who have had little experience with waking altered states when they were not using alcohol or drugs. For example, near-death experiences, which are considered to be mostly positive, have profoundly disturbed survivors who may have trouble reconciling what happened to them with “normal” reality, going back to their lives in light of their new understanding, or coming to terms with their new insights and capacities. The same is true of people who have had a spontaneous transcendent episode during sex. The more you know about what may happen during the state and afterward, the better you will be able to cope with whatever occurs and integrate it in a healthy way into your life. The more you know about what to avoid, the more likely you are to stay out of danger.

But they can also change our lives in dramatic and positive ways. Again, from Jenny Wade's wesbite for the book:

Transcendent sex is to sex what near-death experiences are to dying. It takes you beyond the limitations of yourself and the everyday world into spiritual experiences so profound that you will be transformed. Sex can trigger episodes identical to the highest spiritual states of shamanism, yoga, Buddhism, and mystical Christianity, Judaism and Islam, including:
  • Shapeshifting
  • Being possessed by or channeling animals, plants and supernatural entities
  • Seeing visions of divine avatars
  • Reliving past lives
  • Transcending the laws of physics with paranormal powers
  • Awakening to the enlightenment of nirvana
  • Seeing the face of God

These experiences are so breathtakingly powerful, they can be destabilizing. For people who know how to integrate them, though, they often are the most transformative, healing events of their lives. Research has shown that like other spiritual events, transcendent sex can result in:

  • Becoming whole and shedding a lifetime of shame and guilt about sexuality.
  • Healing from sexual trauma and abuse to enjoy making love.
  • Acquiring paranormal abilities for healing or psychic gifts.
  • Becoming a spiritual seeker after a lifetime of atheism, doubt, or a religion that did not fit.
Who wouldn't want that? I certainly do -- and have been graced with such experience in my life.

However, for me the question in the poem is this: Did Enkidu want that experience? No one asks him if he wants to be transformed -- he was quite happy in his primal state among the beasts until Gilgamesh sent Shamhat to civilize him. And in the end, as a result of his adventures with Gilgamesh, he dies, having cursed ever becoming human. (Tablet Twelve offers a different take, but it seems to have been added on later, mimicking in part the Orpheus myth of Greek culture -- or maybe the Greeks were echoing the Sumerians.)

But then, few of us (according to Wade) are seeking these experiences the first time they occur in our lives. And like Enkidu, who had to spend time with shepherds to learn the arts of being human, we may need to spend some time with a teacher to learn how to integrate what we have experienced.

But will it kill us, as well? Will we come to curse the experience and its impact on our lives.

Ken Wilber (in the "Foreword" to Transcendent Sex) says that sacred, transcendent sex can kill us, if by us we mean our ego-bound sense of self.

What is so important about Jenny's research, however, is that it shows that whatever danger we thought sex held for us, it is even worse. Sex really can kill you, if by "you" is meant the ordinary you, the everyday you, the skin-encapsulated ego of your everyday persona. It's not just that sex can be "mind-blowing"; it's that sex can show you the face of God, the smile of the Goddess, the radiance of Spirit -- and more unnerving still, not as a force or presence out there, but as your own deepest self and nature. (viii-ix)

This is the power of sacred sex -- to transform us, awaken us, offer us a taste of our divinity in whatever way we conceive of it.

Our initiation probably won't last six days and seven nights, nor will it transform us from a beast into a God, but it can profoundly impact our lives. Nearly all of us would love to have this experience, and few of us ever will.

We can do personal work (meditation, tantra, deity meditations, and so on) that can help make such an experience more likely, and Jenny Wade recommends workshops by Ellen Eatough to learn more about this work.

My best recommendation is to become as fully present (this link is for women, but men could learn a lot from this as well) to the body and breath as possible, while focusing on opening our heart to our beloved.

One important thing to remember is that sacred sex is not about the orgasm -- in fact, the orgasm might be a distraction or end the experience. It's more about the heart energy or soul energy opening in the body. For most of us, this will mean undoing our sexual conditioning -- but from my limited experience, I'd say it's worth it to do the work -- and your beloved will be grateful as well.