The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas

Buddhas in Cave 7
A series of Buddhas in Cave 7of the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Gansu, China

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication –  868 A.D. It was printed on a 16-foot scroll using woodblock and was discovered in 1907 in a series of caves in China among 40,000 books and manuscripts that had been walled up there. They are located outside the town of Dunhuang (also spelled Tunhuang).

Early Buddhist monks had made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.”  The location had been a desert outpost along the Silk Road.

The caves were forgotten until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and began to slowly restore the caves. When he eventually unsealed the caves, he found a cache of thousands of texts and paintings. He was unsure of what to do with all of it and was advised to reseal the location.

An archaeologist, Aurel Stein (a Hungarian working for the British)  convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts. Stein left (basically stealing) with 7000 manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics. He gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone about the transaction. The Diamond Sutra was among those manuscripts.

Stein was knighted in England but was rightly hated in China for stealing national treasures. His “discovery” led other scholars to visit the caves and they took more of the treasures, even chipping murals off the walls.

More about the Diamond Sutra

A page from the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty, i.e. 868 CE. Currently located in the British Library, London which says it is “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

The Diamond Sutra

Diamond Sutra

I wrote something earlier that briefly referenced the Diamond Sutra, but it’s a book that deserves its own reference.

The Diamond Sutra was printed in 868 A.D. and is probably the world’s oldest book. At least it is the oldest bearing a specific date of publication.

The Diamond Sutra is a collection of Buddhist teachings. “Sutra” comes from Sanskrit and means teachings or scriptures. The writing is presented as a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his elderly disciples.

The copy of the Diamond Sutra that is considered the oldest was printed with seven woodblocks. Each block was one page and the seven sheets were bound together to form a scroll about 16 feet long.

The Diamond Sutra itself is relatively short and was meant to be memorized. It can be recited in about 40 minutes, which made it popular with Buddhist practitioners.

“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.”
(Buddha speaking in the Diamond Sutra as translated by Red Pine)

The Buddha declares that the sutra will be called “The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom” because wisdom can cut like a sharp diamond through illusion. In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question. What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of perception.

The Buddha often uses things that later in Zen Buddhism came to be known as koans.  For example, he says “What is called the highest teaching is not the highest teaching.”  It is generally thought that he was trying to help Subhūti and his followers “unlearn” preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment.

All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.


It is said although The Diamond Sutra looks like a book, is really the body of the Buddha.

The book was discovered in a series of caves near Dunhuang, China which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” I have written separately about the discovery of the caves.

Your Mother Should Know

Freud

We have all said and heard someone say something that is considered to be a “Freudian slip.” We attach that phrase to what are often embarrassing slips of the tongue, though sometimes we just accidentally use the wrong word. Not to blame Sigmund Freud but in those cases, we interpret them to be more revealing of some unconscious thought.

In the cartoon example above “another” slips into becoming “your mother.” You probably know a bit about Freud and if you do it’s likely that you know that mothers and fathers play big roles in Freudian psychology. Freud would call that a “symptomatic action,” and say it was just just a slip of the tongue.

Another humorous Freudian slip would be a man saying he was unhappy and felt a “need to change my wife” when he meant to say “I need to change my life.” Linguistic error or something deeper?

I read some Freud when I was in high school because I had become very interested in trying to interpret my dreams. Freud wrote that “In the same way that psycho-analysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of the numerous little slips and mistakes which people make—symptomatic actions, as they are called […] I have pointed out that these phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations, that they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions. (Freud, An Autobiographical Study, 1925)

Freud believed that it was our unconscious mind that unlocked our behaviors. Dreams and slips of the tongue reveal those hidden thoughts. “Freudian slips” is our common term. Freud used the German word Fehlleistungen meaning something like “faulty actions.” A translator used the term parapraxes  and the phrase “symptomatic action.

A lot of Freud’s theories are questioned these days and some psychologists and linguists believe that many cases of Freudian slips are really more indicators of the way language is formed in the brain.

I think language explains why Pope Francis was delivering a sermon at the Vatican in 2014, when he accidentally said cazzo instead of caso. Unfortunately, the latter means “example” while the former translates as “fuck.”

Senator Ted Kennedy gave a speech about education and said “Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast – the best – and brightest.”  That is probably also a language thing – but I’m less sure of it than with the Pope.

Do you think a Freudian slip is the unconscious speaking out or a result of a linguistic misfire?

An earlier version of this post appeared at the One-Page Schoolhouse

A Day of No Labor

Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning.  Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.

Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.

American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.

The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.

There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.

Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.

Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.

America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.

It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.

Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

Cats-cradle.svg
“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Kurt
Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.

Your Brain As a Transducer

computer and brain
Image by ParallelVision from Pixabay

For about as long as we have had anything considered to be a computer, we have compared it to our brain. Since we continue to try to create artificial intelligence that is like a human brain, we alternately have used computers to try to understand our brains.

Is it a fair comparison? A computer has storage. So does a brain. Different computers have different processing speeds. Check on brains. We always talk about computer memory, and we talk a lot about our human memory.

Both use electrical signals to send information, though the brain uses chemicals and computers use electricity. The nervous system is high speed but the computer is faster.

What about those on or off (binary) computer switches? Our neurons also fire on and off.

Computer memory can grow by adding computer chips. The brain has plenty of memory space and it expands by making stronger synaptic connections.

But they are not really the same things. Computers are faster than brains and computer memory is more precise. But humans have more storage capacity. And computers still can’t nuance memory access like a brain.

A typical computer runs on about 100 watts of power, but a brain only needs about 10 watts. Super energy efficient.

The computer as brain metaphor has been the dominant metaphor in neuroscience, but now it has fallen out of favor. In fact, it might even have sent scientists in the wrong direction for decades. How about your brain is a transducer?

What is a transducer?  It is a device that converts variations in a physical quantity, such as pressure or brightness, into an electrical signal or vice versa. They are all around us – microphones, loudspeakers, thermometers, position and pressure sensors, and antenna.

The brain is still pretty much a mystery. It’s not a mystery like ghosts, but more of a mystery like dreams. For example, my fingers are right now putting pressure on my keyboard and moving a mouse and both movements and pressures are causing transduction. Analog is converting to digital. Words are appearing on the screen. The words – converted to bits – are flying through the air in my family room to a wireless WiFi point and then flying through a wire off to a server in the “cloud” that might just as well be in the real clouds.

But let’s back up to before my fingers started putting pressure on keys. Organic transduction via our sense organs — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin — is happening. I can’t even comprehend what effect electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, airborne chemicals, liquid-borne chemicals, textures, pressure, and temperature are having on my writing right now. Electrical and chemical activity in my brain is somehow sending those words in a reasonable order down to my fingertips.

Thank you evolution for all the forms of transduction we possess. And thanks for most of the forms of transduction that humans have invented and are still inventing.

There are still some missing transducers. I can’t connect to plants or the universe. I know there are those who say via things like ayahuasca that they can connect to the unseen. Religions all seem to offer connections to a transcendent reality. Neither path has worked for me.

Let’s see if transduction theory catches hold and leads to a better understanding of the brain or the universe.