Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Nats and the Burmese character

Wood statues found in many Burmese temples, and several for sale at Shakespeare’s Sister, 270 Court St., Brooklyn NY 11231, are of people upon whose death gained a spiritual reality as Nats. These are popular spiritual presences propitiated throughout much of Myanmar, and revered in the form of effigies. They represent capricious spirits which can protect and guard, offer assistance and courage, and provide a stimulating example.
The Burmese Nat is a spirit unable to re-enter the cycle of rebirth, due to life conflicts irresolvable from extreme complexities of violence, lust, greed, extreme passions and other unfortunate realities. 37 were adopted as guardians of the country, but thousands more protect crossroads, river convergences, pagodas and other places of worship, summits, homes and places of business. The Nat Pwe is a lengthy ceremony popular with Burmese, and usually involves over a week of drunkenness, prophesy and occasionally, conflict resolution.
Due to a history of despotic domination, and pathological infliction of continual trauma on the Burmese (and neighboring peoples), by Burmese despots, hysterical personality disorders (a.k.a. complicated post-traumatic stress disorders) and compulsive mysticism have become a social norm in the country.
Fear is a common element in life, and it is not only Burmese people who seek protectors who can understand their trauma. What the people of Myanmar are able to find is quite often but a wooden Nat. These representations of spirits or people whose lives were so corrupt, disorganized by violence and treachery, and so unresolved, that they cannot be reborn, are often quite artistic, beautiful and emotionally evocative. Nats are believed to stay in their area, to inflict harm on those who don't recognize and propitiate them, and to protect the helpless. Devoted supplicants may imbibe in alcohol heavily and continuously for nine or ten days, speak in tongues, throw fits and/or achieve ecstatic states, as they then, subsequently, might feel not so helpless, connected as they have become able to feel, to something extra-dimensional, mystical, and beyond the norms of our experience. The Nats help people stabilize in an untenable, unacceptable and incomprehensible society, bringing back some serenity and composure into lives almost as disturbed and disjointed as those of the Nat spirits themselves.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Post 2

A Lahu-na tribal lady, Nasu Lahu-na, long a stateless person but newly gained of Thai citizenship, made these and other fine handicrafts, including beautiful cross-stitch of tribal design. Many Lahu say they would make more handicrafts if they thought there was a market for them.
Nasu married me and became Nasue Barlow.

Yao Taoism

The Eu-Mien of the Golden Triangle are devout Taoists, but thier Taoism has little to do with Lao Txu or the Tao te Ching. Less and less of their art is available, and now almost exclusively in galleries. The mythology is awe-inspiring.

Taoism and the Yao/Mien:
The art and philosophy of Taoism has long fascinated many, worldwide. Yao/Mien religion combines religious Taoism, shamanism and ancestor worship, emphasizing loyalty, respect for one’s elders, continuity of clan, and justice. The gentle, good-humored Iu-Mien observe ancient Taoist traditions fused with animism, reverence for their tribal progenitor and a Taoist pantheon. As far as I know, few Iu-Mien have even heard of Lao Tzu, or Tao De Jing, but to understand the complex pantheon at all requires deep thought. Their paintings, rare now, are mostly of religious subjects, reflecting certain ancient Chinese styles. They’re kept put away except for on occasions of ceremonial use. These paintings have a unique flavor, coveted by many Western collectors. Some Yao/Mien have converted to modern ways, Buddhism or Christianity, but respect for Taoist beliefs remains crucial to Yao identity.
The Chinese doctrine of the Way (Tao) rejects rigid hierarchy, stressing change and indeterminacy over order while emphasizing passive catalytic influence instead of assertive dominance. With no anthropomorphic creator, law-giver or ‘intelligent design’, nor trickster nor devil, but plenty of room for light-heartedness, compassion and experimentation , to Confucian bureaucrats Taoism was appallingly subversive and dangerous. Taoism is about power, and even governance, but more in recognition of what is real than in manipulation. For the Taoist, ego is as ephemeral, illusory and meaningless as for the good Buddhist. But can this most ancient of surviving belief systems help with pressing problems of modern life? Certainly - by providing context, most likely by supplying perspective, and absolutely, by encouraging respect, awareness and sense of proper proportion, discipline, honor and dignity.
The idea goes back to prehistory, the emergence of the Chinese as a great race with the defeat of tribal peoples (Miao) of Southern China, antecedents of the T’ai, Yao and Hmong, among others… and to how this early great civilization tried to explain things. We pride ourselves on material accomplishments (things, which may be hastening our demise), but in fundamentally important ways we’ve learned little to place us intellectually above some early thinkers. Their contributions stand as philosophic rivals to anything ever presented, though some followers, as followers will, have gone a bit, and often more, off track.
Shen Yen Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, a patron saint of Taoism reputedly born about 2700 BCE, began rule as a child. He’s credited with introducing wooden houses, carts, boats, the bow and arrow, coinage, writing and defeating Miao (Meo or Maeo, ancient relatives of the Yao/Iu-Mien) “barbarians” in a great battle, somewhere in what is now Shansi Province. That victory won him leadership of all tribes in the Huang Ho (Yellow River) basin; upon death he became an immortal, and is still venerated by many Chinese. In the eastern coastal region (Shantung), a tradition of Huang-Lao masters, devotees of the Yellow Emperor and Lao-tzu, venerated the Tao te Jing as instructions elucidating the perfect art of government. Emperor Huang-ti, who achieved success because he applied Lao-tzu's precepts, is seen as the patron of technology: classic works on many arcane arts, including alchemy, medicine, sexual techniques, cooking, and dietetics, were all placed under his aegis. Unlike Lao-tzu, the Yellow Emperor is always a disciple, and unremitting seeker of knowledge; thus, the Huang–Lao masters' ideal of a perfect ruler.
Shih Huang-di, born 259 BC, in Ch'in, northwestern China, was another ‘first’ emperor. The only significant member of the Ch'in ‘dynasty’ (221–210/209 BCE), he created the first unified Chinese empire (which collapsed four years after his death), and established a fully centralized administration by abolishing territorial feudal power in the empire. He forced wealthy aristocratic families to live in the capital (Hsien-yang), and divided the country into military districts (each with both military and civil administrator), while also issuing orders for standardization of weights, measures, axle lengths of carts, written language and laws. He built a network of roads and canals, and the strong links between fortresses for defense against invasion called the Great Wall. This Shih Huang-ti investigated magic and alchemy, searching for masters in these arts who could provide him with an elixir of immortality. According to Annie Dillard, “Taoist monks, then and now, run medical laboratories. The (first Chinese) emperor (Qin, Ch’in) ordered the monks to brew a batch of immortal¬ity elixir, under pain of death. Consequently, they took those pains. Again, it was common knowledge that immortal people lived on three Pacific islands, where they drank a con¬coction that proofed their bodies against time. The emperor sent a fleet of ships to find the islands and fetch the philter. Many months later, the expedition's captain returned. He knew he faced death for failing. He told the emperor he had actually met an immortal, who, alas, would not release the philter without the gift of many young people and craftsmen.
“The emperor complied. Away sailed the same canny captain with many ships bearing three thousand skilled and comely young people. They never returned. A widely known Chinese legend claims they colonized Japan.”
Confucian scholars strongly condemned the Emperor’s charlatanry; 460 were executed for their opposition. The continuous controversy between the emperor and Confucian scholars who advocated return to the old feudal order culminated in a famous burning of books (213 BCE). All books not dealing with agriculture, medicine, or prognostication were burned, except historical records of Ch'in and the imperial library. This Emperor Huang-ti was buried in a gigantic 20-square-mile (52 sq. km.) tomb hewn out of a mountain. Excavation started in 1974 unearthed over 10,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers: an army for the dead emperor. Most information about Shih Huang-ti derives from the successor Han dynasty, which prized Confucian scholarship and thus disparaged him and the Ch'in era, so traditional historiography of imperial China regarded him as a villain par excellence, inhuman, uncultivated, and superstitious. But modern historians prefer to stress the endurance of bureaucratic and administrative structures he institutionalized, which remain the basis of all subsequent administrations in China.
So; two guys named Huang-di: one, a Taoist, established Chinese superiority over neighboring peoples. The later, a legalist, made China defensible, well, usually defensible, against outsiders. The first one defeated ancestors of the foremost practitioners of descendent Dao religion (as a unified people anyway). The second first, who destroyed records of whoever came before, has no known relation to Yao people. Some later, perhaps Ming, emperor endowed them with ‘permanent, inalienable rights’ which, of course, they have lost.
Confusing? Beginnings often are. The Tao involves chi: the a priori prime mover, love, while also its inverse and contra positive – both force and thing, particle and wave, energy and amoeba, and on into hunger and satisfaction, yearning and reverence, pride, admiration, lust, acquisitiveness, contentment, ecstasy, sacrifice, competitive testing, narcissism… it seems varieties spin on into new forms, reaching and solidifying, rearranged into differentiating hues, dynamics and other interactive attributes, growing, finding Twin, reflection, yin & yang, evolving, stretching, and multiplying on. Tao, or chi, is benevolent, encouraging development of understanding, and acting with knowledge of how things (in general and specific) work. Taoists consider social convention detrimental to integrity, and simplicity essential to freedom.
Yao Taoism involves no memory or understanding of the Tao de Jing, but mixes shamanism, ancestor worship and a large pantheon of gods derived of Taoist religion and awe of Chinese Imperial bureaucracy. Yaos are a practical, good-humored people without delusions of grandeur; fantasies of Taoist alchemists aren’t entertained in their methodologies - no life-extension techniques or feng shui, sen lines or qi, just respect for a spiritual hierarchy, philosophic good humor, and pragmatic use of local herbs for minor maladies.
The Iu-Mien, or Yao, originated in southeastern China and speak an Austro-Tibetan language of the Miao-Yao-Pateng family (closely related to that of the She and the Hmong or Miao). “Yao” may mean “Those who refuse to be conscripted into doing corvée labor,” or it may come from the ‘Eu’ of Iu-Mien (pronounced “ee-yu”). Twenty years ago there were almost two million Mien; there are other people also called Yao, a total over 6 million (many adopted, bringing in new blood). The 60,000 in Thailand have but one dialect and style; in China there’s a couple dozen, perhaps 70 all told. They believe in a well-ordered cosmos, of which they have many mystical details, and in maintaining proper relationships both in human society and with the spirit world. They make studied effort to avoid causing any loss of face, and are meticulous with ritual and ceremony, which they see as essential for propriety. Hardy and industrious, they were one of the first Chinese minorities to achieve local autonomy. In China’s Dayao Mountains, they produce quality tea-seed oil, tung oil, vanilla, edible fungi, rice and garden crops. In Thailand their cash crops include herbal medicines, spices, indigo, corn, legumes, cotton, lichee, oranges, coffee, tea, and peaches. Villagers also make utensils and embroidery. The Iu-Mien have long excelled at making farm implements such as axes and ploughs, and also have a reputation for making high quality jewelry and paper (this is mostly done in China, but some lower quality paper gets made in Laos). Yao wood carvings include signature chops for wax seals and dark-wood demons, sometimes on horseback, decorated with horsehair (for mustaches, etc).
Iu-Mien houses sit on the ground, usually with dirt floors, and feature a cooking fire in the center of the main room, a small shrine dedicated to ancestors and maybe a favorite God like Kwan Yin, and especially to the guardian spirit of the individual house. A home’s number of rooms depends as much on the ages of those living there, as on their number: nubile girls are given private rooms with easy access for suitors! Iu-Mien forbid quarrels among children, and avoid strife. Pressed between Han Chinese and Zhuang T’ais for perhaps 1000 years, they migrated, settling whenever they could. When they can get a metal or tile roof, they do, though many still have perpetually dirty feet!
Yao people’s main concern is to provide for their extended family and maintain stability in life. In the past, the Yao were totally self-reliant; when opium became a main crop, they amassed silver and embroideries to hand down, in hopes of assuring a long lineage. They also sought “Yao Ceremonial Paintings” to help ensure descendents’ prosperity and their own status after death. They respect each other according to a hierarchical system: households with extended families are common and polygamous marriage sometimes practiced. After a proper bride price is paid, the wife goes to live with her in-laws; children become members of the father's matrilineal clan.
In Thailand, the Mien women’s tradition calls for black turbans, not showing any hair, loose trousers covered with beautiful embroidery, and a large scarlet-red wool ruff on their blouse-jackets. The turbans are usually embroidered. Teeth are sometimes capped with gold. Baby’s skullcaps are intriguing, richly embroidered with red or pink pom-poms. On special occasions, women and children wear silver neck-rings, with silver chains extending down the back decorated with silver ornaments. Men wear a loose jacket, buttoned diagonally across the front, with embroidered pockets and edgings.
Iu-Mien prefer to live among low hills near dense forest, at lower elevations than some Mountain People, particularly the Lisu and Hmong. Unlike other mountain people of the region, many Iu-Mien use writing, and have papers or cloth scrolls for explaining proper treatment for illness or bone problems, appropriate marriage days, and details concerning ancestors and rights granted them, in perpetuity, by Chinese emperors. Many Iu-Mien men speak, and some are literate in, Yunnan Chinese (similar to Mandarin, though the writing is archaic). Too often, though, just the shaman spirit doctors, and a just a few others in a village, read and write much at all. Knowledge of the archaic writing is diminishing; the young become more and more assimilated into outside culture, and use their modern local language (Chinese, Thai, Lao or Vietnamese).
Their religion reveres firstly, ancestors and spirits, and secondly Taoist deities rooted in 13th and 14th Century Chinese Taoist beliefs (owing much to Lu Hsiu-ching, publisher in 471 of the first Taoist canon, and to T’ao Hung-ching, who ordered and described the pantheon, in the early 500s). In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) magical suppositions and beliefs became popular. The Mings refused to make a trade treaty with the Portuguese, who sold arms to the Manchus... Magical practices of Taoism came under attack during the resultant (and final) Ch’ing Dynasty. Yaos moved south, and west.
To the Iu-Mien, spirits (of places, streams, trees) are seen as opposite to people; they own the night, and are stronger than humans, but the Mien consider themselves smarter. Many ceremonies honor guardian spirits, and ask pardon from the Spirit of the Mountain for living there. High Priests, "Tsow Say Ong", perform funerals and deal with ‘Big Spirits above the sky’ while lesser ones, "Sip Mien Mien," deal with malicious causers of illness and bad luck, ‘small spirits under the sky.’ Priests perform birth and wedding ceremonies, and exorcise evil spirits from people and places. A Shaman is different – someone through whom supernatural spirits can interact with people. He assists in curing ceremonies by calling ancestral spirits, and has his mentor spirit go to the spirit world to ask the cause of illness. Smoke, candles and offerings are used… a shaman creates charms and performs magic to drive away demons of ill health. Often in curing ceremonies a shaman will go into trance and become possessed by supernatural beings, as part of the healing process. With Priests, paintings imbued with a kind of spiritual life are important, although essential only for certain functions, during which men-folk try to gain some experience of heavenly realms.
Iu-Mien political structure is limited pretty much to village headmen; the village is the largest political unit. The headman’s duty is to be the village representative, keeping contact with outside governmental authority and settling conflicts occurring within the community. The shaman and the elder representative of each clan are informally organized to be a village council giving advice to the headman. The Shaman is the spiritual leader and highly respected.

The first Taoists were shamans who lived a life of seclusion in the mountains, studied the ways of nature until they established a communion with the unseen divine and thereby discovered a kind of magic by which they could interact successfully with nature’s primal forces. Their powers became known to others, and after death they were honored, then venerated as "Immortals" (along with ancestors, Taoist Gods and other magic spirits). Many Taoists went to the mountains for meditative solitude, where they must have met Iu-Mien priests, who began conducting rites for contacting and worshiping Taoist gods, as well as ancestors and spirits.
The Yao retain strong visual images of their Taoist pantheon through "god pictures" (mien fang). At the summit of the Yao pantheon the fam t'sing, "Three Pure Ones” are assisted by Nyut Hung, the Jade Emperor, and Seng Tsiu, “Master of the Saints". Beneath these are a series of lesser celestial beings, including warrior gods, nature divinities, and lords of hell. The icons, often finely painted, are regarded by Iu-Mien as the literal abode of the gods. The artist who paints them performs an "eye-opening" rite according to Chinese religious practice – an event transcendent to painting a depiction, as this bit makes it an icon with a kind of life. Of approximately 25 large paintings in a ceremonial set, 10 to 12 are more desirable as decorative art than the rest, but they usually come on the market as a parcel, and sellers find reason not to break up the sets. They were never meant to be divided or sold, but some of the images have quite exemplary evocative artistic power, and now decorate wealthy homes. Depictions of the Jade Emperor and his earthly counterpart, Seng Tsiu; the Three Pure Ones (To Ta, Yen Si, and Leng Pu); a duo, the governor of this world and the governor of the waters; another opposite duo, governors of the skies and underworld; the Li Celestial Master Lei T'in Sai (with sword) and the High Constable T'ai Wai; plus Hoi Fan Ton (riding a dragon across water) and the similar but red-faced Hsien Fong (banner bearer of the vanguard), make the most majestic impressions, but quality, naturally, varies. The best of these sell for thousands of dollars. Six of the full set, including the rare Enforcer of Chastity, are small, and there's a long one of the whole Pantheon, a "spirit bridge." There are 5 or more "Divine Head" masks, and wreaths (or fans, divided into 7 or 9 sections with drawings) for adorning a High Priest's head.
For over half a century (at least), YaoMien men would engage in elaborate ceremonies to cultivate trance-states and even possession (key individuals wore spirit masks), then their neighbors the Lahu experienced a series of messianistic fervors and in the last decades of the last century hill-society experienced much drug-addiction (most prominently among the Akha, who subsequently have accepted Christianity more than the other tribes). In the new millennium, the Mien have found rich, eager foreign buyers for ceremonial accoutrements and silver jewelry, and taken active interest in the modern world, but they retain a positive philosophy and good humor.

Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of Wu Wei, action through inaction. This means a practice of minimal, particularly non-violent, action, though the Taoist is not precisely a pacifist. He’ll take military action when he hasn’t seen ahead far enough to prevent need for violence in the first place. When violence thus seems necessary, the Taoist leader uses force until he’s achieved his goal, then stops, saddened by destruction, by any need for bloodshed. To use Wu Wei is to have patience - to allow things to unfold in their own way, in their own time. This doesn’t imply complete lack of energy expenditure - just recognition of the flow and cycles permeating the world we travel through. To realize Tao, generally speaking, a twofold process was considered necessary: (1) cultivation of the mind, with quietude, passivity, gentleness, and self-effacement the main characteristics to be aimed at; and (2) a gradual refinement of the bodily substance by means of physical exercises, dieting, regulation of breath and the taking of appropriate drugs. Much of Taoist religion developed as a reaction against the sober outlook and strict moral discipline of the Confucianist system, which may account for the general tendency of records of Taoist ‘Immortals’ treating life rather as a huge joke than as a serious problem.

Knowing ignorance is strength; ignoring knowledge is sickness.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course;
it cannot be ruled by interfering.
Nothing is more soft and yielding than water,
yet for attacking the solid and the strong, nothing is better.

The Taoist sage has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail.
He who never fails always succeeds.
And he who always succeeds is all-powerful.

"To become full, be hollow."

According to Annie Dillard, “Even the purest metaphysical Taoist thinkers, the Lungman Taoists,” (celibate, monastic Dragon Gate devotees of the northern Complete Reality School, favored by Yüan Dynasty Mongol emperors) “say that people ‘can assist in improving the divine handiwork’ - or, as a modern Taoist puts it, people may ‘follow the Will of the Creator in guiding the world in its evolution towards the ultimate Reality.’ “ She also wrote, “If the human layer in which we spend our lives is an epiphenomenon in nature's mechanical doings, if science devotes scant attention to human culture, and if sci¬ence has scrutinized human consciousness only recently and leaves other disciplines, if any, to study human thought—then science, which is, God knows, correct, nevertheless cannot address what interests us most: What are we doing here?”
Well, we’re here to observe, and by observing, affect, and even influence, what is observed. We’re here to witness and modify, and perhaps, eventually, fully approve. To try to do much more is, of course, to ruin everything. Do only what you have to do. Don’t ask, you will know. Sometimes you have to work, sometimes what you have to do is play. The Buddha seems to say we can see a way out of our suffering, but to the advanced Taoist that may seem just another vanity. Buddha, like Jesus, returned after transcendence. The Taoist never wanted to leave (well, except the presence of normal society).
As the Yao-Mien chose to stay removed, largely, from the Confucian Chinese, so a group of Europeans also preferred not to assimilate into Empire. Because they stayed so strange, only misleading, confusing names were given them (though they sacked Rome at the end of its glory). Their holiest site stands at the periphery of Taoist cultural influence: Altai. Encyclopedia Britannica says, “the wide diffusion of Taoism throughout the vast T’ang empire is reflected by the sizable proportion of Taoist texts discovered in the walled-up caves at Tun-huang (Dunhuang, in Kansu Province, by the Taklamakan Desert). This town in the far west of China was the gateway to Central Asia; and here Taoists came into contact not only with Buddhists of many different doctrinal persuasions but also with Nestorian Christians and Manicheans. Copies of the Lao-tzu were sent to the King of Tibet, and the book was translated into Sanskrit at the request of the ruler of Kashmir. It also reached Japan in the 7th century, as did texts of religious Taoism; reports of Taoism’s dominance on the continent may still be read in the diaries of Japanese Buddhist pilgrims. The geographic extension of the religion at this time was also represented, in the legendary sphere, by the systematic elaboration of its sacred mountains and the traditions attaching to them.” It would be odd if ‘European’ (Tokarian PIE Proto-IndoEuropean speakers) of Altai never encountered the Tao. But more on that later.

Rhythm, onomatopoeia and alliteration
Use recurrence, as essential to poetic essence
As rhyme, or dreamy sensitivity.
Whirling eddies and vortices have fascinated
The aesthetic and reflective for millennia…
Visibly organized but inexplicable patterns
Reminiscent of poetic quality tell
Of the reverberant, redolent
Echoing nature of our world and lives.
The regular, rocking recurrence in waves, ripples
whorls and orbits can fascinate, hypnotize,
Lead us out of ourselves and briefly into something
Beyond even time.