Thursday, 30 December 2010

Solitude (Anna Akhmatova)

This is my version of a translation from the Russian of a poem by Anna Akhmatova written in 1914. Thank you to Betsy (carinadolce) for drawing my attention to this poem! 


So many stones have been flung my way,
They fizz past, I no longer cower
And this ivory cage in which I stay
Now stands tall, a majestic tower.

To those who carved out its mighty wall,
I am grateful for the part they played.
I wish them joy and would bless them all,
"May sorrows pass you, be not afraid".

Now the first splendid glimpse of sunrise,
And sunset's bright rays, laughing their last,
Through my chamber windows greet my eyes,
While winds of the northern seas fly past.

From my hand, a dove eats grains of wheat.
Meanwhile, the fragment verse calmly waits
For the Muse's worn hand to complete
The gift divine from the palm of fate.

Frithjof Schuon's Art & Philosophy

Paintings by Schuon to Nox Arcana:

Schuon on his philosophy (a remarkable tour de force in less than 3 minutes):

Quoting, Printing or Saving parts of webpages
If you want to quote part of a website which includes graphics (so you can't just highlight it), here's a cool way of doing it! Go to the kwout link and enter the address of the webpage you wish to quote in the box where it says "http:// ...", drag a box over the region of the webpage you wish to quote, click "Cut Out", then choose the options that suit you and copy the code given to embed the image of the chosen area somewhere else on the web.

As for printing parts of a webpages, a very simple trick I only learnt recently is that of highlighting the part you wish to print, then when you print, click on "print selection only". This is a good way of avoiding banners, advertising etc. that usually plague the tops of webpages. Not all browsers have this option though, but some do, such as Firefox.

And one final note, suppose you want to save the selection, but not necessarily print it. Then, again you highlight and "print selection only", but you also check the option "print to file", so instead of printing, the selected part of the webpage will be saved as a file on your computer.

Chopin - Kobayashi, Igoshina, Lisitsa & Rubinstein

I've been listening to a lot of Chopin the last few weeks.
The delicacy of Valentina Igoshina I shared in a past video post:

Nancy said: She IS Chopin.... This was playing when we wandered through the garden of Żelazowa Wola, his birthplace....lovely... okei said: :))))

It turns out there's another talented Valentina: Valentina Lisitsa. Her finger-speed is quite special, and she seems especially good at the fast, complicated, powerful pieces

And then there's the master Arthur Rubinstein, here performing in his last recital at the age of 89!
He played the same piece in the 1950 film Carnegie Hall when he was only 63. And he also played it here to the Moscow Conservatory in 1964. You can tell he knew how to have fun...

And maybe... this is the future? :^)

A Trick for Reading Old Books on the Computer
Perhaps there's a better way of doing this (in which case please enlighten me), but I've discovered recently about Amazon's Kindle for computer. Technically, Kindle is a handheld device for storing books on which it is apparently quite pleasant to read, but there is also a version for computer. If you go to Amazon, you'll notice many books offered for Kindle for free. The only catch is that you have to have a Kindle to read them. But if you look under "1-click purchase (for $0.00)", you'll find a link to download "Kindle for Mac" or "Kindle for PC", which is actually a neat piece of software. Then for all the books no longer under copyright, even though Amazon may charge for them, you can pick them up for free at the following sites:

And what's great is that for any book on these sites, there will be an option for Kindle, which will allow you to read it using that piece of Amazon software. Opening the Kindle option will automatically add that book to your library on your Amazon Kindle (and you may delete it later if you wish, though if you get it not from these sites but from Amazon, Amazon will always remember and have it archived for you to put back in your library even if you don't want them to). Technical note: the actual source files will be in the Documents folder if you have a Mac and end in .azw.

But who wants to read long books on a computer? I'd rather borrow or buy them. Still, there are aspects of the Kindle software which actually make it quite useable though I'd normally hate to read long things on a computer. Most notably, by pressing Apple and + on a Mac (and no doubt something similar on a PC), you can enlarge the font and narrow the window and the text adjusts to the screen, so you can read from a greater distance than normally at a computer or from a smaller part of the screen than normal. Also, you can highlight passages and add notes, and the software saves the parts you've highlighted or annotated (and in the case of Amazon books even backs them up for you, again it seems though you might not want it to). And finally, of course, the books are searchable.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Reflections on the Dao (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 1-25 of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) in haiku form.

The image is "Mysterious Portal" by Baron Arild Rosenkrantz.

Behind words and names
Are the nameless origins
And the gate of Truth.

Teach without words, for
Knowledge creates opposites.
Act smooth – don’t attach!

Show no preferences!
Empty minds and fill bellies
For natural order.

The soft mother of all things,
Deep, still and timeless.

Nature lacks humour.
It thrives in empty spaces
In the fertile mean.

The valley spirit,
Ever last, ever present,
She produces all.

Masters and planets
Live for the Way, not themselves,
So long they endure.

Be fresh like water,
Nourishing, not comparing,
Supple, and go deep.

Don’t overdo it.
When your task is done, step back!
Such is Heaven’s Way.

Can you breathe softly,
Birthing, but not possessing?
This is true Virtue.

Some things have value,
But power lies in empty space
Open to intent.

Senses overwhelm.
Be satisfied and look in
To waken insight.

He who loves himself
And respects his own suffering,
You can trust the world.

An unceasing thread,
Merging in One formless form,
Thus begins the Way.

The Masters of old,
No doubt seemed muddy like fools,
Unrefined, unknown.

Emptiness boundless,
Centred in stillness, in fate
One sees what’s constant.

The best kings are known,
The next best are loved and praised,
The worst are hated.

When the Dao is lost,
We find the concepts of love
Replace the real thing.

Knowledge, craft, planning,
Rid the people of these three,
Embrace the genuine!

Indifferent and still,
Like a child who’s not yet smiled,
I drink my Mother.

The utmost life force
Shapeless, formless, trace it back
To the obscure source.

Those who overreach,
Affirming self, lose their ground.
So they are toppled.

An old paradox,
“Bend over, you’ll be kept whole.”
In wholeness, you shine.

One with death finds death,
One with life finds life, so too
One with Virtue’s Way.

Four great mirrors are:
Man, Earth, Heaven and the Dao.
The Dao is in all.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Daoist Anarchy (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 17-19 of the Tao Te Ching. This is my interpretation based on other versions.

Of the highest rulers, those below simply know they are there.
Of the next best, they love and praise them.
Of those another step down, they fear them.
Of those yet another step down, they ridicule and insult them.
When trust is lacking, he will lack trust.
Cautious! Thus is his use of words.
He completes his duties and finishes his tasks,
And the people say, "It happened naturally."

When the Great Way is rejected, it is then that we find "humanity" and "righteousness".
When knowledge and wisdom appear, it is then that we find great hypocrisy.
When the six relations are not in harmony, it is then that we find "filial piety" and "compassion".
And when the country is in chaos and disarray, it is then that we find praise for "upright officials".

Eliminate knowledge, get rid of argumentation, and the people benefit a hundred-fold.
Eliminate artistry, get rid of profiteering, and the people benefit a hundred-fold.
Eliminate planning, get rid of deliberation, and the people benefit a hundred-fold.
These three are your mission, yet they are not sufficient.
We should add an affirmative injunction:
Look to the simple, embrace the genuine, lessen self-interest and make few your desires.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Original Formlessness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 14-16 of the Tao Te Ching. This is my interpretation based on other versions.

Look, and you cannot see it. We call this "the infinitesimal".
Listen, and you cannot hear it. We call this "the background hum".
Touch, and you cannot grasp it. We call this "the straight and smooth".
These three cannot be examined to the limit.
Therefore they merge together as one.
"One" – there is nothing more encompassing above it
And nothing more infinitesimal below it.
Unceasing, continuous, it cannot be defined.
It reverts to the state of nothingness.
It is called the formless form;
For it is an image without substance.
It is called the subtle and indistinct;
For following it, you do not see its back,
And greeting it, you do not see its head.
Hold to the Way of the present
To guide the things of the present
And to know the primeval beginning.
This is the beginning of the thread of the Way.

The One who was skilled in practicing the Way in antiquity
Was subtle and profound, mysterious and penetratingly wise.
His depth cannot be known, and because it cannot be known,
We would sing his praises thus:
Cautious was he! Like someone crossing a river in winter.
Unresolved was he! Like someone in fear of his neighbours on all four sides.
Polite was he! Like a guest.
Self-effacing was he! Like broken ice.
Unrefined was he! Like a lump of wood.
Unparticular was he! Like muddy water.
Open was he! Like a valley.
If you let rest the muddy water, gradually it becomes clear.
If you make active the female roots, they gradually come alive.
The one who preserves the Way does not desire to be complete.
It is only because he does not desire to be complete
That he fulfils himself, yet does not need to be renewed.

Take emptiness to the limit.
Guard stillness at the centre.
The ten thousand things leap forth side-by-side.
Being at rest, I see their return.
Heaven's Way is abundant.
Each returns to its roots.
This is called stillness.
"Stillness" – this means to return to one's fate.
To return to one's fate is to be constant;
To know the constant is to be wise.
Not to know the constant is to be reckless and wild.
If you are reckless and wild, your actions will lead to misfortune.
To know the constant is to be all-embracing.
To be all-embracing is to be impartial.
To be impartial is to be kingly.
To be kingly is to be like Heaven.
To be like Heaven is to accord with the Way.
To accord with the Way is to live till death free from harm.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Openness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 11-13 of the Tao Te Ching, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscript (168 BC).

This is my interpretation, so please tell me if anything doesn't ring true.
Notice again how we start with the philosophical and move via the psychological to the practical.

Thirty spokes meet at the centre;
It is precisely where there is nothing that we find the intent of the wheel.
We bake clay and make vessels;
It is precisely where there is no substance that we find the intent of clay pots.
We chisel out doors and windows;
It is precisely in these empty spaces that we find the intent of the room.
Therefore, we regard having something as beneficial.
But having nothing as being open to the power of intent.

The five colours light the eyes to perceive clearly.
Horse-racing and hunting disturb one's mind.
Precious belongings endanger one’s travels.
The five flavours overwhelm one's palate.
The five tones deafen one’s ears.
Therefore in the government of the master:
He sides with the belly and not with the eyes,
Thus letting go desires of the belly and opening the eyes of insight.

“Regard favour and disgrace with alarm.”
“Take responsibility for suffering as for your body.”
What do I mean by “Regard favour and disgrace with alarm”?
The problem is with favour.
If you get it, be alarmed!
If you lose it, be alarmed!
This is what I mean by “Regard favour and disgrace with alarm.”
What do I mean by “Take responsibility for your suffering as for your body”?
The reason why I have great suffering is because I have a body.
If I had no body, what suffering could I have?
Therefore, to one who values acting for himself over acting for the world,
You can entrust the world.
And to one who ungenerously regards his own person as equal to the world,
You can rid him of the world.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Suppleness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 8-10 of the Tao Te Ching, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscript (168 BC).

The supreme good is like water.
Water nourishes the ten thousand things without comparing.
It dwells in the low places that people disdain.
Therefore it is close to the Way.
In dwelling, it is good to live close to the ground.
In thinking, it is good to go deep.
In giving, it is good to be benevolent.
In speaking, it is good to be sincere.
In governing, it is good to have order.
In work, it is good to have ability.
In action, it is good to be timely.
Only that which is beyond comparison is therefore beyond reproach.

To hold upright and fill to the limit is not so good as stopping.
When you sharpen to the limit, it will not stay sharp for long.
When gold and jade fill your rooms, you’ll never be able to protect them.
Pride in wealth and rank, unchecked, will sow the seeds for disaster.
When your task is done, step back!
Such is Heaven’s Way.

Can you nourish your soul and embrace the One without forsaking the Way?
Can you concentrate your breath and make it soft like that of a new-born child?
Can you transform and purify your divine mirror so that it has no blemish?
Can you love people and guide them without filling their minds?
In opening and closing the gates of Heaven, can you play the part of the female?
In understanding all within the four reaches, can you do away with knowledge?
Giving birth and nourishing,
Giving birth and not trying to possess,
Helping to grow, but not overruling,
This is called Profound Virtue.

Story of a Sing-Song Girl (Bai Xingjian)

This is based on a short story by Bai Xingjiang from the T’ang Dynasty, China (~800 AD).

Story of a Sing-Song Girl
Son of an emperor, he was undone
By the beauty of a sing-song dove.
She took him in and he had such fun,
Abandoning his studies for love.

But time for lovers passes away,
A year flew by, his money ran out,
The dove it flew too, one windy day,
And he could find her nowhere about.

He began singing funeral songs,
His voice was heard, the emperor got word.
So furious was he, of his son’s wrongs,
He half-killed him for loving that bird.

But the dove, she sensed his mortal strife
And flew back at once, aching with guilt.
Soothing him, she brought him back to life
And vowed to stay till his strength was built.

Slowly she nursed him back to good health,
In time he’d be as grand as before.
She took care of him, emptied her wealth,
And encouraged him to study more.
She helped him to read through the long hours
And when he was tired, made him write verse
So, mind relaxed, he regained his powers
And excelled despite his father’s curse.
One day he was ready for the test,
But she held him back another year,
This time to make sure he did his best
And would pass with great distinction clear.
When the emperor heard his son, not dead,
Was alive and famous far and wide,
Distinguished in virtue and well-read,
Delighted, he called him to his side.
The dove saw then that her work was done
And bid farewell though he begged her stay,
Insisting she leave the emperor's son,
But relented to come but partway.
When the son arrived and told this tale,
The emperor called back his saviour dove,
Struck by her faithfulness to travail
That she had shown his son through her love.
And so the pair, united once more,
Lived happy for the rest of their years,
Blessed by a love that none can ignore
For it had shone out through pain and tears.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Emptiness (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 4-7 of the Tao Te Ching, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscript (168 BC) discovered in 1973.

The Way is empty,
But when you use it,
You never need fill it again.
Deep and still like an ancient ravine,
It seems to be the source of the ten thousand things.
It files down sharp edges,
Unties knots,
Softens glare
And settles dust.
Submerged, we think it might be present,
But we don’t know whose child it is.
It seems to predate its maker.

Heaven and Earth are without mercy, unswerving.
They regard the ten thousand things like straw dogs.
The master is without mercy, unswerving.
He regards the common people like straw dogs.
The space between Heaven and Earth – is it not like a bellows?
It is empty, yet not depleted. The more you move it, the more it produces.
Fill it up with airs of knowledge and it is quickly exhausted.
That is not so good as staying in the middle.

The valley spirit never dies;
We call it the mysterious female.
The gates to the mysterious female–
These are the roots of Heaven and Earth,
Subtle and everlasting, seemingly ever-present,
And in being used, never exhausted.

Heaven endures; Earth lasts a long time.
The reason why Heaven and Earth can endure and last a long time
Is that they do not live for themselves.
Therefore, long do they endure.
Consequently, the master:
Puts himself in the background, yet finds himself in the foreground;
Puts concern for himself behind him, yet finds it in front,
Puts aside concern for himself, but finds it preserved.
Is it not because he has no self-interest
That he therefore realizes self-interest?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Dao - The Way (Lao-Tzu)

Verses 1-3 of the Tao Te Ching, based on the Ma-Wang-Tui manuscript (168 BC) discovered in 1973.

The Dao is very simple, but words do not capture its nature.
The Dao is the Way, but the Way does not capture its power.
As for the Dao, the Way that can be told is not the constant Way.
As for names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the origin of the ten thousand things.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Therefore, those constantly not seeking it will come to realize its subtlety.
Those constantly desiring what they seek will see that which they desire and seek.
The nameless and the named emerge together.
They are called different things, but they bring forth the same.
What they share is more profound than the profound,
The gateway to all understanding.

When everyone in the world comes to know what is beautiful, ugliness is created.
When everyone in the world comes to know what is good, bad is created.
The mutual creation of being and non-being, of difficult and easy,
The mutual formation of long and short, of high and low,
The mutual harmony of idea and speech, of front and back —
These are all constants.
Therefore the master lives by doing without doing,
And he practices by teaching without words.
The ten thousand things arise, but he does not begin them.
He acts on their behalf, but they do not depend on him.
They accomplish his tasks and he lets them go.
And because he lets them go, they therefore do not leave him.

By not elevating the worthy, you avoid people competing.
By not valuing rare goods, you avoid people stealing.
By not showing off that which is desirable, you avoid people being distracted.
Therefore, to govern wisely, empty minds and fill bellies,
Weaken thirst for ambition and toughen bones of resolve.
If he can cause people to be without knowledge and without desire
And bring it about that those with knowledge dare not act,
Then there is nothing that will not be in order.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

On the Beauty of Hair (Apuleius)

This is my version of Apuleius’ eulogy on hair (~170 AD). For the original extract, see my review of The Golden Ass, the picaresque novel from which this is taken.

On the Beauty of Hair

I love a woman’s head and hair.
When first a girl catches my eye,
There’s little else for I would care!
Her flowing locks, I foremost spy.

So when time comes for me to leave,
I have a picture in my head
And need not stolen pleasures grieve
When I retire myself to bed.

My habit’s based on reason sound:
That hair is always on display
A bright adornment all year round
Like spring’s bright clothing worn in May.

But hair is even prouder still,
For as every young lady knows,
Her body without wrap or frill
In nakedness her beauty shows.

Even the brightest thread of gold
Has less charm than her naked flesh,
Which delicate she would unfold
To stir the loins of passion’s thresh.

And may none try what will be said,
Excusing me this reckless thought,
But should a beauty shave her head,
Her splendid face would come to nought.

Should she even float from heaven,
Or like Venus, be born from foam,
Smelling fragrant as cinnamon,
Graces and Cupids on the roam,

Even dripping in rich balsam,
Love’s girdle clasped around her waist,
Still, in baldness, she’d have no charm,
Not even to her husband’s taste.

This natural framing for the face,
What joy it is to see its hue,
Caught directly in sunlight’s brace
Or dancing every moment new.

Shade and shine changing with the light,
First gold, then honey sparkling through,
Or raven black and dark as night,
Then glorious tints of dove-neck blue.

Apply a lotion from the East
That gives the hair a glossy shine
And like a mirror at a feast,
On beauty doubled love can dine.

Bunched up in a luxurious bun,
Or flowing rippling down her spine,
A woman’s hair, however done,
Surpasses every jewel fine.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Golden Ass - Apuleius

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Greek Farce with a Spiritual Twist
Originally entitled "The Metamorphoses", and said to be inspired by a lost work in Greek of the same name, “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius (born 125 A.D.) has the distinction of being the only complete novel in Latin to survive into the modern era. It is also the first instance of a picaresque novel that became such a popular genre in medieval times; the protagonist is an anti-hero beset by ill fortune as he stumbles from one misadventure to another, but is ultimately redeemed. This form of story, combining realism with fantasy, provided authors the opportunity to lay bare the flaws and vices of society under the guise of the fantastical whose proposed purpose is only to humour and entertain.

This book is certainly entertaining, packed with stories and overheard sub-stories, ranging from the sexual to the mythological, the cruel to the magical, as the protagonist in his desire to be initiated into magic finds himself mistakenly turned into an ass, suffering terribly from and bringing ill fate to his successive owners. Evil masters, unfaithful wives, lecherous lovers and deceitful priests in particular all come to wicked ends. From his asinine state, he is ultimately saved by Isis, the supreme mother goddess of many names, who hears his prayers to the moon, comes to him in a dream and instructs him how to regain his human form.

The original Latin is incredibly difficult and hard to translate. Early translators often left out the bawdy scenes that might offend sensitive readers. Robert Graves, whose translation I was reading, gives a more complete rendition in easy and flowing English. More recent translators, meanwhile, have sought to capture the rollicking and racy sound of the original, but this is not so easy.

Highlights of the book include the intricate telling of the legend of Cupid and Psyche, the extolling of the beauty of women’s hair, and the dream imagery of the goddess Isis (see extracts below for the latter two). Many believe that Apuleius himself was initiated into the cult of Isis and that his mystical "eleventh book", which stands rather in contrast to the rest, is partly autobiographical, especially since he mistakenly (or intentionally) conflates his protagonist's home town with his own and makes him a barrister in Rome like he had been. He was certainly fascinated with magic, and much of what we know of him is from a defence he wrote against the accusation that he had won his wife's love by magical means, which he strongly denied. Born like St. Augustine in a rich Roman province in North Africa, he travelled widely before returning home. As well as magic, he was also fascinated with dreams, and the truths that come through dreams that reveal the subterfuges and deceptions of people and provide the answers to problems in reality. Indeed, the whole book has the atmosphere of a dream.

We are left wondering if despite initial appearances this might actually be a religious text among followers of Isis, which would account for its preservation? If so, there would certainly be a symbolic structure to the whole, like the journey of the fool represented by the tarot, or the stages of man. Looking online, despite the expansive literary work on Apuleius’ novel, the proposed explanations of such a structure seem speculative at best. However, it is interesting that the protagonist Lucius, and the servant-girl Photis whom he initially falls in love with, both have names symbolic of light. Isis meanwhile emerges from the sea in Lucius’ dream on the night of the full moon and bears a light on her brow. This image is reminiscent of Venus, herself the goddess of love. Conversely, Cupid only visits his wife Psyche by cover of darkness so when her curiosity gets the better of her and she shines a lamp as he sleeps, it is through light, representing knowledge, and a spark that burns him, representing lust, that the lovers are torn apart. So which is the true light? Apuleius’ answer no doubt is not Photis nor Psyche nor Venus, not magic or knowledge or lust, but the supreme Isis.  Indeed he portrays Venus in the story of Cupid and Psyche, as jealous of her mortal rival, unlike Isis, the real-Venus, his saviour from the baseness of humanity, the corruption of religion, the curiosity of magic, and the winds of ill fortune that he came to know as an ass.

So how to distinguish the real? If we compare the slave-girl Photis, representative of Venus, with whom Lucius falls in love, and Isis whom he ends up worshipping, the form of love is very different. Photis’ love is highly sexual, described with the imagery of gladiatorial combat, as she urges him on to have the courage to fight her through the night, while Lucius meanwhile complains of having been standing at arms all day and how his bow is so tightly strung that he feels it might snap. Isis’ love, by contrast, is peaceful, platonic and regal, demanding patience, chastity, faith and resignation to honour and serve her.

But for Apuleius, it was all about hair! (Or rather this is my opportunity to quote him and give you a flavour of the book.)

Photis ties her hair up in a knot (which she only undoes in the bedroom at Lucius’ request):

'It's only a woman's head and her hair that I'm really interested in. It's what I like to feast my eyes on first in the street, and then enjoy in private indoors. There are good and positive reasons for this preference. The hair is the dominant part of the body: it's placed in the most obvious and conspicuous position and is the first thing we notice. The rest of the body achieves its effect through brightly coloured clothes, the hair through its natural sheen. In fact most women, when they want to show off their personal attractions, discard their clothes altogether and remove all covering, eager to display their beauty naked, and reckoning that rosy skin will please better than gold fabric. If on the other hand -- though it's blasphemy even to mention it, and I devoutly hope that such a thing will never happen to make the point -- if you were to despoil the head of even the most beautiful of women of its hair and rob her face of its natural adornment, though she had come down from heaven, though she had been born from the sea and reared among the waves, I say though she were Venus herself, escorted by her choir of all the Graces and the whole tribe of Cupids, wearing her cestus, fragrant with cinnamon and dripping with perfumes -- if she were bald, not even her husband would love her. Then there is the fascination of its colour and sheen: now vivid enough to outshine the rays of the sun, now gently reflecting them; or varying its charm as its colour varies and contrasts – sometimes bright gold shading down into pale honey, sometimes raven-black with dark blue highlights like those on the necks of doves; or when, perfumed with Arabian essences and delicately parted, it is gathered behind to give back to the lover's gaze a more flattering reflection; or again when it is so abundant that it is piled high on top of the head, or so long that it flows right down the back. In a nutshell, hair is so important that whatever adornments a woman may appear in – gold, jewels, fine clothes – unless she's made the most of her hair, you can't call her properly dressed. As for my dear Photis, it wasn't that she had taken great pains with her hairstyle – it was its casualness that was so fetching. Her luxuriant tresses were carelessly flung back, hanging down her neck and over her shoulders; where they just touched the upper edge of her tunic she had gently looped them up and gathered the ends together into a knot on the top of her head.'

But Isis wears her hair loose.

‘Not long afterwards I awoke in sudden terror. A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at secret hour that the Moon-goddess, sole sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortune seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.
  Jumping up and shaking off my drowsiness, I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:
  “Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them berad raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.”
   When I had finished my prayer and poured out the full bitterness of my oppressed heart, I returned to my sandy hollow, where once more sleep overcame me. I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.
   Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with cars of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what aught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.
   In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp witch pulled throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.
   All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. 
   My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.
   The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.
  ”Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”’

Lucius meanwhile is called up to three rites of initiation through his dreams and ends up shaving his head completely!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Loving-Kindness & Compassion (Pema Chödrön)

This is fourth in the series of Chödrön-based teachings accompanied by Chopin. Previous episodes introduced bodhicitta, three lords of materialism and learning to stay. This one is about spreading joy and alleviating suffering.

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great joy, devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in great equanimity, free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

This is the chant of the four limitless qualities, also known as the four immeasurables. We can transform this to our own personal version. What seeds we sow are up to us. The aspiration practice of the four limitless qualities is a particularly powerful way for us to sow seeds of well-being in ourselves and others. These four are:
(1) loving-kindness, (2) compassion, (3) joy, (4) equanimity.

We begin by acknowledging where we already feel love, compassion, joy and equanimity. We locate our current experience of these qualities, however limited, in our love of music, empathy with children, joy on hearing good news, and equanimity when we are with good friends. We learn how it feels when one of these qualities is stuck, and and how it feels when it is flowing freely. We never pretend that we feel anything we don't. Rather, we make an aspiration. This is different from making an affirmation, which hides how we really feel about ourselves. We aren't trying to convince ourselves of anything, and we aren't trying to hide our true feelings. We are expressing our willingness to open our hearts. We are aspiring to tap into the boundless qualities of the heart for the benefit of ourselves, others and all sentient beings.

Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals. (Mahatma Gandhi)

For the formal practice of loving kindness, metta or maitri, we traditionally begin with ourselves and expand outwards in seven stages. Sometimes people find that too hard. It's important to include ourselves, but whom we start with isn't critical. Just locate that ability to find good-heart and cherish it, even if it ebbs and flows. Before we begin the aspiration practice, we sit still for a few minutes. Then we begin. The seven stages are 

(1) ourselves, (2) loved ones, (3) friends, (4) "neutral" persons, (5) those who irritate us, (6) all of the above as a group, and, finally, (7) all beings throughout time and space.

Thus, we gradually widen our circle of loving-kindness. It's fine though to take just one stage and work with that for a while. It may also be important to put the aspiration for happiness in your own words which has meaning for you. For some, happiness is not what they want, but realising one's fullest potential, or speaking, thinking and acting in a way that expresses fundamental well-being, or… it's up to you.
The people who irritate us are those who inevitably blow our cover. Through them, we might come to see our defences very clearly. Before Atisha brought the bodhicitta practices from India to Tibet, he was told that the people in Tibet were universally cheerful and kind. He was afraid that if this was the case, he'd have no-one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train, so he brought along his Bengali tea boy who was as skilful at showing him his faults as his guru. The joke is that he didn't need that Bengali servant because there were plenty of annoying people in Tibet.
Making the aspirations is like watering the seed of good-will so it can begin to grow. In the course of doing this we'll become acquainted with our barriers – numbness, inadequacy, scepticism resentment, righteous indignation, pride and all the rest. We make friends with our fears. Unconditional good heart towards others is not even a possibility unless we attend to our own demons. Everything we encounter thus becomes an opportunity to train. The sixth stage is also called "dropping the barriers", the seventh "universal peace". A simplified form of the practice has just three steps: "May I enjoy happiness and its causes. May you enjoy happiness and its causes. May all beings everywhere be happy." At the end of the practice, we drop all words and wishes and come back to the non-conceptual simplicity of sitting meditation.

The practice of compassion is similar, but this time we begin with our ability to be genuinely touched by suffering. It involves learning to relax, move gently towards what scares us, to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance. As for loving-kindness, we might wish to make a list of those who evoke these feelings in us, and again we begin after a short meditation with an aspiration that feels genuine and not sentimental or contrived. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests "May I be free of anger, … fear and worries. May I not fall into a state of indifference or be caught in the extremes of craving and aversion. May I not be the victim of self deception."

As before, we then work outwards. The fourth stage of the "neutral" presents an interesting challenge. Many of us come to this point of the practice and go numb. We say the aspiration, but can't connect to people we don't know. We might be shocked to find how indifferent or even fearful we are towards so many people. When it comes to the fifth stage, we must remind ourselves that habits of fear, anger and self-pity are only strengthened if we continue to buy into them. The most compassionate thing we can do is to interrupt these habits. Instead of always pulling back and putting up walls, we can do something unpredictable and make a compassionate aspiration.

Sometimes the only way to make the practice relevant is not only to make the intention, but also to act on it… in the checkout line, at the breakfast table, at the office. When I practice the aspirations on the spot, I no longer feel so separated from others. A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness, the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon.. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others, she replied, "Same instruction."

Source: Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You. The music was Chopin's "Trois Ecossaises" and his Op. 10 No. 3 played on the violin.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Stringed Orchestra’s Limericks (Anonymous)

It’s getting cold now,
So let these playful verses
Offer light relief.

Enjoy love’s music,
But don’t ever imagine
That it’s original.

Passion plays the strings.
If you know his ways, you’ll know
His tune is stolen.

There was a young guitar player called Santo
Who was seduced by a girl who did panto.
As she lay in his arms,
She signalled with her palms,
“Second movement: adagio ma non tanto”.
There was a violinist from Rio
Who came home with a young girl called Cleo.
As she slipped off her panties,
She said, “No andantes,
I want this allegro con brio.”

There was a young girl whose frigidity
Approached cataleptic rigidity,
But if you gave her a harp,
Then she’d play Mahler’s C-sharp
And melt in complaisant liquidity.

There was a young lutist called Rick
Who took a girl home for a flick.
When the action ended,
   She drooled, “That was splendid,
But the climax was awfully quick.”

The cellist named Don would invite
    Young sopranos home for the night.
He tested out a few keys
Till her arias became pleas
To quit practice and sleep before light.

In slumber entwined before long
She laughed in her dream at her song,
But sunlight’s warm greeting
Awoke her heart beating
That the way he had played her was wrong.

She looked at him sleep by her side
And thought how she loved his great pride,
Then chose not to linger,
Nor relish the finger
That beckoned her on for the ride.