Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding religion in Asdonk

Walking in silence on a winding road towards a site that was, just possibly, a sacred site in the distant past, so as to resacralize it. That's what I did last Saturday, in pleasant and wholesome company.

Asdonk is a hamlet on the northern rim of the municipality of Diest, in the borderland of the Flemish geographical regions of de Kempen (Taxandria), traditionally an area of sandy heath and forest, thinly populated and poor; and the rich agricultural Hageland, "Hedge land", named after the hedges that used to protect the grapevines during warmer centuries when Brabant had a pioneering wine industry. Ernest Claes, a local heimat writer who grew up in a house on the (then) wasteland between the nearby Kempen village of Averbode and the Hageland village of Zichem, described how he found himself influenced by two mentalities: "the merry Hagelander and the introspective Kempenaar". In that respect, Asdonk is on the side of the introspective type.

Asdonk is one place where the traditional heath/forest character of the region has been preserved. The name is traceable to the age of Charlemagne, 9th century, when a commander of military scouts was rewarded for his services with a fief including Asdonk. The "donk" in the name means a marshy depression in the landscape, a moor, and the islands rising up from it. The word is related to donker, German dunkel, "dark", and to dungeon. And effectively, the area is partly a low-lying wetland with islands and makeshift bridges, often haze-covered. Misty, mystical, mysterious... The component "as" is a longer story. Dutch has a word as (<ahs) meaning "axis", which doesn't seem related. There is a homographous word as (<asch) means "ashes", also unlikely though it would add over-emphatically to the site's connotation of darkness. Also, there was an old homophonous form as, now normally es (<asch), meaning the "ash" tree. Ash trees are not in evidence there in any exceptional quantity. At any rate, the spelling "as" indicates a recent coinage, quod non. We need an old form "as", and the one that comes to mind is the Roman name for the smallest weight/monetary unit. Relevance?

But what if it came from "ase", a pre-Christian Germanic term for "a god"? The suggestion is made by neo-Pagan mastermind Stefan Van den Eynde, if only playfully. Note that the ace in the deck of cards, Dutch "aas", is both the lowest (as 1) and the highest value in the series: lowest like the Roman "as", highest like the Germanic "ase". A modest indication for a link between Asdonk and the old gods is this. One of the old gods, Wodan/Odin, was imagined as presiding over the Wild Hunt, conducted by the Wild Horde, originally a band of young warriors living on the outskirts of society, who had a free run in their god's festive season, the dark second half of autumn. The children playing "trick or treat" during Halloween re-enact these hordesmen on their wild hunt. Now, in Asdonk there happens to be a lane called Jachtdreef, "Hunting Lane", yet the oldest records don't show it to be a location of actual hunting. Aha, wouldn't that be a clue to an Odinist tradition of the Wild Hunt at the site? No proof for that, but let's take heart as long as no one has disproven it either.

Blackness is written all over Asdonk, where one rivulet is called the Black Brook, another the Black Water, while the nearby river's name Demer seems to be related to Latin temere, Sanskrit tamas, all meaning "dark". Usually heathen sacred sites are on hilltops, such as the christianized ones nearby: the abbey of Averbode with its Mary Forest, and the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel, built around a sacred tree on a hill. What could be sacred about a moor?

One religious ceremony that our ancestors, including the much-venerated Druids, sometimes practised, was human sacrifice. This could be conducted by drowning the victim in a swamp. Indeed, the best-preserved human bodies from ancient Northwestern Europe are the peat-moor corpses, sacrificial victims found in swamps. Maybe some dredging in Asdonk could yield interesting remains. Then again, there may be nothing to this at all.

What I like about Stefaan's view of religion is that he doesn't try to revive corpses of gods, ancient beliefs which mostly are known only in distorted and incomplete form. He starts from reality, and from modern man. We have an inborn sense of the sacred as much as our ancestors did. We only need to remove the cobwebs that have covered this sensitivity in years of not paying attention.

Either way, the landscape has a powerful feel to it. Especially for Flemish city-dwellers who don't know of any location where you can get away from the sight of houses and the sound of automobiles. Last Saturday, the temperature was pleasant for an autumnal afternoon, greyish sky, windy with an occasional sizzle of raindrops but over-all just dry. In the outside world, it was the last day of daylight-saving time, the eve of the official winter time, which must have been the EU bureaucracy's way of adding to the seasonal atmosphere.

We started out on a two-hours' pilgrimage, the fifth that Stefaan has been conducting annually with the purpose of sacralizing or resacralizing this piece of space, charging it with human attunement to the cosmos. After all the philosophers' debates on the "disenchantment" of the world, could it be time to fill the world with spirit once more? We walked at a good pace, which towards the end made it hard for me to keep up, damaged creature that I am. However, the walk was punctured by six stops, where uplifting poems were read out. Otherwise we observed strict silence. That in itself is enough to turn a walk into a pilgrimage.

At one point, a narrow bridge without hand support across the Black Brook was designated the bridge to the world beyond. Like the dying on their final journey, we held a money coin (an as...) handy to pay the ferryman, and threw it in the water. Dying to be reborn, and all that.

When our guide announced we were going to cross yet another bridge, now to the deathless divine world, the one thing lying across the water that caught my eye was a storm-felled tree. Was that dying Tree of Life the bridge to the hall of the gods? Well, no, a bit further on a proper bridge was waiting, modern pilgrimages assure the pilgrim's comfort. On the island, on a hillock, we were awaited by Stefaan's wife Heidi, who had prepared a fire-pot. Everyone was invited to throw some herbs and resin into the fire, a more civilized sacrifice than the peat-moor corpses of yore.

There were, if I recall well, sixteen of us. Most were members of a neo-Pagan society on which I will write later this week. At the last station of the walk, its new chairman ritually opened the group's working year and gave a brief speech. Brief means two or three sentences, he's called Herman the Taciturn for a reason.

I was apprehensive there was going to be an invocation of some gods -- what else would you expect of Pagan revivalists? But no god or similar creature (oops, Creator) was mentioned. The universe is enough. It means something to us moderns, whereas the gods, of any pantheon, are comic characters to us, at best name-tags for the different cornerstones of the cosmos. Just as the old gods didn't need to be depicted, today they don't need to be named. Now that Christians rarely take God seriously anymore ("God, if You exist, save my soul, if I have one"), even the Pagans are doing without Him/them.

The old religion was not centred on gods or beliefs, but on practices. One traditional practice that we found easy and pleasant to uphold, is the collective drink. The horn was passed around and from it we all drank mead, which I discovered to be heart-warming.

Though I didn't notice it at the time, I was told later that the roots of the tree under which we congregated, had the shape of a horseshoe. No doubt the footprint of Wodan's race-horse Sleipnir. This reminds me that along the way we had also passed a crossing of five paths, which in mystic Brittany they call a "Druid's foot". More proof of a higher presence in the landscape, that. All in Asdonk.

If nothing else, the physical exertion and the forest's oxygen had certainly made the walk worth my while. And the friendship. I always associated silence with the Orient, yoga ashrams have "silent retreats"; but getting together with fellow-countrymen in silence creates a sense of communion as well, as a welcome side-effect. As for Asdonk's degree of sacredness, it must have increased somewhat that afternoon, but I am not equipped with the antennae needed to perceive such things with any exactitude.

After bowing out to the trees, we walked most ordinarily, no longer with sealed lips, to a tavern on the forestside. I lagged behind, and suddenly found myself in the company of a charming lady coming up from another forest path. She seemed to be more familiar with the place. Was she part of the territory? After all, an Enchanted (or Re-Enchanted) Forest needs its own Lady of the Lake. No, she was simply going back to her car after a stroll in Asdonk. Not a pilgrimage, just a pleasant afternoon in the greenery. We exchanged a few comments, nothing profound. Or did she keep her lips sealed on the deeper secrets that Asdonk divulges only to its persistent lovers, those who return there once and twice and thrice over?

P.S.: Google for "Asdonk wandeling" and the local tourism service will explain to you how you too can come and respectfully contribute to the Asdonk spirit.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

China rebukes rude Miss Belgium

Hedonistic navel-gazing is the prevalent mode of contemporary popular culture. Never in history have celebrities found the opportunity for self-indulgence on such a massive scale. This makes them painfully incomprehending of people who have to deal with reality and therefore have a more sober and less whimsical lifestyle. Case in point: Goedele Liekens' misplaced intervention on sexual mores in China.

Enough has been written against colonialism, including irritatingly anachronistic tirades by Third-Worlders against "neo-colonialism" deemed to secretly perpetuate colonial power equations. Yet, some colonial attitudes do persist, particularly among the liberal elite. They have neither understanding nor sympathy for the cultural conservatism and resistance to Western cultural influence displayed by most Third World populations. After all, even if Muslim populations free themselves from their religious straitjacket, they still won't fall into the other extreme, that of Western liberalism and libertinism. This is demonstrated by the reticence of the highly secularized Chinese people in matters on which our society has recently broken all taboos.

Just now I saw a re-broadcast of a VRT (Flemish state TV) series on contemporary China, some two years old. The guide was Lulu Wang, a Chinese author living in the Netherlands and fluent in Dutch, and she takes one Flemish celebrity after another to places and people pertinent to their own specific areas of interest. This time her guest was Goedele Liekens, former Miss Belgium, sexologist (a specialism within the psychology faculty) and author of several very explicit sex guidebooks. She went around questioning people about their love/sex lives.

Every businessman about to visit China is briefed beforehand that prior to talking business, you first have to establish a relationship by means of light talk over tea or dinner, and let a day or more pass before coming to the point. And that's only business, here the theme of the conversation was rather more intimate stuff. Yet our Goedele (no, I'm not being sexist by using her first name: she set the trend herself by launching a magazine named Goedele) plunged right in. The programme had to be shot in a few days, so perhaps there was no alternative. At any rate, in those circumstances I'd be wary of the quality of the answers she was getting.

Then again, it's not like as if the Chinese interviewees were made to divulge more than they wanted. Those ordinary peasant women knew for themselves how far to go with this unabashed big-nose (= Westerner). They mainly talked about how their marriages were contracted and how concerned they were about finding a good match for their own children (or, more often, only child). A mother of one remained perfectly friendly when explaining that she was with her husband only once a month, for that's how often he could come home from work, and even when being asked: "Don't you miss the sex?" Kindly, she didn't let on that Goedele came across as not merely vulgar, but as a sex-hungry unhappy female, just the stereotype that most Orientals have of emancipated Western women.

Dissatisfaction is indeed the basic vibration of her type of sexual liberation preacher. To make the point more explicit, while teaching her Chinese interlocutors about love, she had to include a little aside that she had just divorced. And we may add that meanwhile in the real world, the boyfriend who replaced her husband has also just left her. These things happen, and I wouldn't dream of berating any fellow human being for it,-- but then please don't start preaching to distant nations about how to conduct relationships.

She kept on fussing about how unhappy rural Chinese wives were under the presumed tyranny of their husbands, fathers-in-law and (especially) mothers-in-law. Yes, a young man on the look-out for a bride was recorded as saying that she should be well-disposed towards his parents, and Goedele considered this a strange priority. She failed to understand that the nuclear marriage is a very shaky construction whereas the integration of a couple into a larger family is a formula that has proven fairly successful across millennia. She saw no sign of love between any husband and wife, even between boyfriend and girlfriend, meaning that she didn't see them making intimate displays of affection in public. Just once did she observe a couple kissing, and this made her exclaim: "This is the first time I see people showing love for each other." She had no appreciation for the Chinese people's natural discreetness and modesty, as if these were merely obstacles to be removed.

In her sexology studies, Miss Belgium had of course come across the fabled illustrated sex manuals from ancient China, in which the woman's pleasure is a central concern of her male partner. That is a far cry from the African and now largely Islamic custom of female genital mutilation, intended to limit the woman's lust. While this Chinese pursuit of the female orgasm was of course more pleasurable for the woman, the reason for it was nonetheless far from feministic: the idea was that female juices enhance the vitality of the man who plunges his organ into them, and he could extract more elixir out of her if she climaxed mightily. To maximize the effect, he should do it with as many healthy young women as possible. This practice has been denounded as "sexual vampirism", though the victim was given maximum pleasure. For all her lamentable oppressedness under the ancient Confucian patriarchy, at least this premium on the Chinese woman's sexual satisfaction must have been quite a consolation to her.

Unfortunately, in today's China Goedele didn't see any signs of this erotic tradition. Of course not, it was mainly a pastime of the ruling classes dismantled by the Republic (1912-49) and the People's Republic (1949-), never much in vogue among the peasant majority. Moreover, as a vestige of "feudal superstition" and "decadent ruling-class hedonism", this Daoist sexual "alchemy" and any general displays of erotic enthusiasm, after having already lost some steam during a neo-Confucian millennium of increasing prudery, were actively suppressed by republican modernizers and especially by the Communists. Chairman Mao, however, was one Communist who, as his unique privilege, did put into practice the belief that plenty of sex with plenty of young women promotes health (and even cures venereal disease). Unfortunately, he wasn't available for an interview.

Goedele equated the marriages brokered by parents or by match-makers with the "loveless, calculated" marriages in premodern European royalty. Chinese people explained to her that when a couple start raising children, they lose their initial passion for each other anyway but evolve a deeper bond, more consequential and lasting than the juvenile infatuation which Westerners call "love" and deem the only legitimate basis for marriage. But she didn't do much listening and preferred to do the talking. To the extent that the Chinese (and likewise the Indians) haven't been swayed yet by pop culture from the West, they consider the exclusive Western premium on emotions as the basis of marriage or "relationships" as downright silly.

For all her psychological training and sexological experimentation, she clearly hasn't understood that the emotionalism and self-centredness that condition contemporary sexual mores in the West, are not deemed superior by Asian societies, nor a welcome enrichment. Far from being superior to the sobriety and self-control that she found to be still largely the norm in China, they are the main cause of the brittleness of contemporary marriages in the West.

My apologies to Goedele for my rudeness in putting it so explicitly to her. But then, speaking of rudeness, her performance at Beijing University (rated one of the top five universities worldwide) was amazingly inappropriate. She started telling the Chinese audience, consisting of advanced psychology students and their professors, that they did it all wrong, that Chinese men don't love their wives, etc. After the Western fashion, she invited comments from the audience, and those that she got made perfect sense: the proud Chinese explained to her, again in very friendly tones, that she shouldn't confuse love with ostentatious displays of affection. When a man said this, she objected that he was a man, and he had no answer to that. So female students raised their voices to explain that Chinese women lead pretty successful lives and are pretty happy as well. (They certainly smile a lot more than Goedele does.) She had announced before entering the hall that she was going to carefully raise explicit sexual issues, which I didn't see, but it must have been tough stuff, for at some point Lulu Wang, at the hosts' request, told her she had to stop the presentation. She was not taken to a labour camp, merely shown the door in the most inoffensive manner possible. Outside the door, she wondered aloud why they had taken offence.

To be sure, my judgment may be overly harsh in that I haven't taken into account her disorientation at being thrown quite suddenly into a very foreign society. So, my apologies again if this has come across as my definitive opinion on Goedele Liekens' sexual philosophy and on her record as a missionary of sexual liberation. If she could do it all over, I am sure she would correct some of her mistakes even without anyone telling her to. Nevertheless, her performance certainly has revealed an incomprehending attitude of condescension that is still common enough among Westerners.

Two days ago, I saw an episode of a similar documentary series on India (conceived as a sequel to the China series), where another Flemish TV lady explored man/woman relations in Kerala and uttered all the same platitudes. She too failed to show any respect for the explanations the natives gave for their age-old familial arrangements, e.g. the allotment of specific types of agricultural work to women only. There is plenty of progress in the position of women in both India and China, but what alienates our celebrity ladies is that it doesn't have the same self-obsessed quality that they themselves display in their interviews to glossy magazines. In China, chan/zen monks literally contemplate their navel, but people seeking love should extend their awareness beyond their little selves.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Eroticism and flaky spirituality

Human life has different dimensions. Hindu scripture gives them a specific time of the day: religion (dharma) at dawn, lucrative work (artha) in the daytime, erotic pleasure (kama) in the evening. All civilizations have tried to give each of these a proper place. But some people aren't satisfied with this division, and want to unite and fuse these different dimensions. I think there is no need for this, and that it can't work anyway. In particular, the fusion of spirituality and sex is a mirage.

In the "natural healing" centre in the town where I live, courses are being offered in "Tantra". This is advertised as a way to enlightenment through sex. In my Indology studies I have had to spend some time reading the Tantric tradition, and of course it turned out to be rather more complicated than what it is made out to be in the lifestyle magazines. A demythologization is in order, and I'll make a modest beginning here.

Let us clarify first of all that there is nothing mystical about the Sanskrit word tantra. It means "weaving-loom", with warp and woof, hence a multi-dimensional system, something complex and its explanation, hence a manual or simply a "text", a "book". This is the same derivation as that of text from Latin texere, "weave". The Tantra-s are a class of medieval religious texts focusing on ritual and symbolism. In some cases, the sex act is also a symbol-laden ritual, which is why some Hindu and Tibetan gods and goddesses are depicted as copulating, in a dignified seated posture.

In the June 2009 issue of the quarterly EnlightenNext (Dutch edition), the well-known thinker Ken Wilber, who calls himself a "defender of the Dharma" and an "intellectual Samurai", grapples with the issue of sex as a purported way to Enlightenment. With approval, he summarizes the position of the Tantric tradition thus: it says to neo-Platonists and Theravada Buddhists and other ascetic traditions that "you can focus on consciousness and rise to the top of integral unity etc., but you know what... you can also do the same through sex. And sexually it's a lot more fun!"

Oh well, if there's a lady out there who knows the secret of realizing enlightenment through sex, I am willing to learn from/with her. But so far, I don't believe that there really is such a thing as " for enlightenment", though people are at liberty to try. No dour moral rejection of the whole idea, this, just skeptical that it is even possible. Not on empirical grounds, I can't say I've tried the experiment, but on logical grounds.

In the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or "awakening" (bodhi), the goal of the path is technically defined as "blowing out" (as of a fire), "extinction" (nirvana). This means in particular the extinction of desires ("thirst", trshna), which the Buddha calls the cause of man's ultimate problem, viz. suffering (duhkha). In Upanishadic doctrines of "liberation" (mukti, moksha), the focus is more on the conquest of "ignorance" (avidya), the self-forgetful absorption of the Self in its objects of consciousness; but the need to still the noise of desire is never absent. Enlightenment is, as a minimum, a state of peace, of freedom from desire. It is by definition a state that cannot be bettered by anything that is more desire-fulfilling or, to use Wilber's phrase, "more fun".

Meditation is exclusive of any focus of the attention outside, not even on a dearly loved partner, nor on the sensations accompanying the sex act. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the goal of yoga is "isolation" (kaivalya), viz. of consciousness from its objects, so that consciousness is exclusively focused on (or "resting in") itself. These objects from which consciousness must be turned away are everything that is not the neutral, empty, purely observing state of consciousness itself. They include sensory perceptions, memories, imagination, reasoning, interpersonal concerns, dirty desires as well as noble feelings, anger as well as love. Whatever the value of those things in human life may be, they have by definition no place in meditation leading to enlightenment.

Incidentally, the Sanskrit term kaivalya, "isolation", seems to be etymologically cognate to the Latin words coelebs, whence "celibate". We should not make too much of etymology, and this one should not be taken as proof of any necessary connection between celibacy and enlightenment. Quite a few traditions do think that celibacy is a necessary precondition for serious progress in meditation, others are more generous. At any rate, the term kaivalya in this context does not speak out on the matter. The isolation indicated by it is not that of man from woman, but that of consciousness from its objects. This term merely says that true meditation is a state separate from any and every kind of mental involvement in anything.

After meditation, after "coming down" into ordinary consciousness of and interaction with the world, your experiences may undergo a quality change, and I suppose even sex will not be the same as before. In that sense your sex life may benefit from meditation, but it cannot constitute meditation nor replace it as a method for enlightenment. By all means, make your partner happy, in bed and elsewhere, that's already a mighty contribution to a better world; but please don't delude yourselves that this is enlightenment. The fun of it is good enough in itself and has no need of being labeled "spiritual".

This is really pretty obvious, and it's a bit silly that I have to articulate something so self-evident. Only a spoiled generation like our own could think up this fanciful idea of sex as a way to enlightenment.

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Ban smoking for freedom

Two political-cultural aspects of the anti-smoking policies enacted in most Western countries frequently come up for debate: freedom, and "the cult of health". In my view, contra some of my libertarian friends, the freedom to smoke is restricted by other people's freedom to breathe. As for the "cult" of health, I fully subscribe to it.

The data are in: the recently enacted bans on smoking in public places have drastically lowered the incidence of cardiovascular crises. As a heart patient, I have often felt unwelcome as well as suffocating and in mortal danger in smoke-filled public places. So I took to avoiding them and staying away from quite a few social events. That's all over now.

People who don't value freedom of expression and of association, and who don't realize their distinctive importance for liberty and democracy, have lumped them together with "freedom to smoke" as victims of "political correctness". A side-effect of such usage is that it blunts the critical impact of the ironical anti-leftist use of "political correctness", a leftist term subsequently turned around to expose the tirannical thrust of the left's hegemony. But more importantly for now, it illegitimately borrows the aura of higher freedoms to justify the petty freedom to indulge a habit that is harmful to oneself and to others.

Do people have the right to force others into sharing their own harmful puffing? No, and especially not from a libertarian viewpoint. This overpopulated world is still big enough to allow for walks in the wild where you don't impose your carcinogenous exhalation on others.

Do people have the right to harm themselves, a right that the "cult of health" seems to deny? Well, even health faddists don't usually go out of their way to force others into the gym or out of their smmoking and drinking habits. The current smoking bans still leave smokers free to smoke, viz. in the larger half of space that doesn't consist of public gathering-places. It is not forbidden to overeat, or to live without exercise or natural amounts of physical locomotion. So, the freedom to harm oneself still prevails.

But something could indeed be said for encouraging responsability by not shielding people from the consequences of their own harmful conduct. Once I had a pre-surgery talk with a cardiac surgeon, who wanted to know about my lifestyle, because he limited his services to people willing to take charge of their own health: "I do not like to use my expertise, and social security should not be made to pay, for treating people who bring it on themselves by refusing to quit smoking." I don't want to pronounce off-hand on how far this principle can be taken, but you get the idea: people should not pretend to be surprised and treated unjustly when their conduct turns out to have consequences.

And to some extent, your health isn't entirely private property either.

There does exist such a thing as collective property. Consider for example the landscape. In Belgium until recently, libertarian anarchy prevailed: you could buy real estate anywhere and build anything on it. In the neighbouring countries, and increasingly here too now, the rule is that you can only build in designated areas, and then often only in the traditional local building style. The character of the neighbourhood is a collective property that the individual is not permitted to disturb. This notion of collective property, particularly collective heritage, is probably the central bone of contention between conservatives and libertarians.

To some extent, and I admit that things are very relative in this grey area, even one's own life and health are collective property. If you take your own life, it affects not only yourself. You also deprive your parents of a son, your wife of a husband, your children of a father, your associations of a chairman or valued member, etc. Now that euthanasia is becoming mainstream (in Flanders, 2% of deaths nowadays are through euthanasia), most people don't mind if a terminal patient has his life and suffering terminated: his presence at that point doesn't make much difference, he already isn't playing his role in the family and in society anymore. But in most cases, taking your own life is a devastating intervention in other people's lives as well. Likewise though to a lesser extent, neglecting or harming your health is an infringement on a common good, a unilateral imposition of a burden on others.

That is one of the reasons for bans on hard drugs. With smoking, a total ban may go too far, but serious curbs and discouragements are entirely in order. Let us drect our libertarian energies to serious struggles, currently especially to the defence of freedom of expression, and not waste it on the freedom for smokers to drag others down with them in the effects of their own habit.

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