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.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mythorelics main legends

In 1530 a Black man started on a road to immortality as a kind of Native American divine. His name was Esteban; most likely he’d been a slave to Spaniards. The Panfilo de Narvaez expedition to Florida he was with blundered badly, and he became a slave to Indians. Then he and the last three or the Spaniards became holy men, followed and revered. For years they wandered the deserts of the American west, until encountering other Spaniards in Mexico. Soon after, Esteban was wearing ermine while holding on leash a dozen Dalmatians. Going back north in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, every time his party stopped at a village for the night, he took a new girl. Quickly, his status as a holy man fell into question, and, pierced by about a dozen arrows, he died. His spirit, though, was remembered, becming known as Chakwaina Katchina, punisher of bad deeds. Katchinas are normally spirits of nature, but this instance more reminiscent of Nats in Burmese culture. A Nat represents the spirit of a person whose life was so horribly, tragically out of order that all chance of re-entering into the cycles of rebirth became curtailed. Nats are believed to protect those who propitiate them, torment those who don’t, and to come to the aid of the culture which gave rise to their sad situations, in its times of extreme need.
People find need of myth – it’s better than history for making explanation of things which resist comprehension. Myths needn’t be clear to endure: there were 12 Olympian Gods, but who can name them? This isn’t like naming the 7 Dwarves, having trouble remembering Happy or Bashful. No, it’s that there is no correct answer. Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, and Hermes – so far so good, easy enough. These are memorable characters. Then there’s Hephaestus (for Romans, Vulcan), the deformed blacksmith, whose name doesn’t come as easily to mind, but never-mind. Poseidon is considered one of the 12, but Hades isn’t; three brothers, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon were given three realms to rule, and Poseidon belongs in his realm, the oceans, as much as Hades belongs in his underworld (where he stays). Hades’ wife Persephone was held to be at Olympus only half the time, so maybe now we’ve got 11, or ten and a half... Dionysus is an easy #12, but he came later – and there were 12 before him. Hestia (Roman Vesta), guardian of the hearth, is given as #12, but she has no stories, is a different kind of deity altogether, closer to Demeter, giver of corn. Suddenly we’ve got 15 gods, nine of whom are clear Olympians, and eleven named as such until Dionysus disrupts things, as he does, bumping the storyless Hestia.
Cultural historian Edward Said wrote that stories are at the heart of our world view, as “the power to narrate, or to block other narrations from forming,” is what defines culture. Without simplification, history has simply offers too much; also it fails in emphasizing patterns and cycles we can only extrapolate. From myths of Robin Hood and King Arthur, the Noble Savage, the Divine Right of Kings and Manifest Destiny we can move to “Terrorists” and “Free Trade”, the Communist Menace, Intellectual Property, the Nation-state and National Security. Transubstantiation and the Virgin Mary’s virgin mother (Saint Ann, a saint before Christianity, somehow, maybe) help us better understand myths of multilinguals with “the gift of languages” and other prodigals like Shakespeare and Marco Polo. It’s simply exaggeration, hyperbole, used for emphasis, making even bigger what’s already important.
Bach, Beethoven and Mozart really did have special, amazing talents, but there are more believable explanations of the two writers just mentioned than to take things at face value, as commonly presented. Whenever else did Chinese make a foreigner, a Barbarian, into an official, other than in the stories of Marco Polo? In what other Elizabethan theater troupe did a single person produce every script? It simply didn’t happen. Exaggeration was used to glean greater respect, more notice than would otherwise have occurred.
In 19th Century Siam a nation-building myth was constructed by the ruling dynasty, to help fend off colonialists, whose methods they well understood, having come out of a tradition of colonialism themselves. An empire and an alphabet were invented, and retain much local acceptance in belief and teaching. Legend, not only these but others, even more easily demonstrated false, are fiercely defended when felt challenged. But there was no Empire of Sukhothai, as people of the Malay Peninsula, who were supposedly conquered by it, well know. The “Ramkamhaeng Stella” supposedly produced by the all-conquering king of mythical Sukhothai after he “invented” the Thai alphabet, uses local script in a different way than is found anywhere else, ever. A very similar script was (and still is) used in southern Nanchao (western Yunnan), and all surrounding alphabets use vowels sometimes above, and sometimes below, consonants; the Ramkamhaeng inscription uses vowels in European fashion – after all, it was Europeans the stone was made to impress! Strong, though, is resistance to accepting what I have stated here.
My namesake was the original salesman for the area now the State of Ohio. He took a partner, William Playfair, who put out a pamphlet advertising a wonderful land with 80 pound catfish, sugar exuding from trees, tobacco flourishing with no toil and “frost almost unknown.” This came down through the family as, 'where candles grew on trees and pigs didn’t mind if you took a slice off of them'. People believed Mr Playfair; some wigmakers, perfumers and dancing-masters paid for parcels of land and traveled over. After clear-cutting trees, they buried many of them, not knowing what else they might do!
Now, some who could conceivably be descendents of the few survivors of that disaster believe that a corporation can be both a person and property, without ever wondering if that might not be illegal, as slavery.
Umberto Eco’s book "Baudalino" explores this reality of myth as history’s backbone, through the legend of Prestor John. Never, though, does he even brush on the issue of how this legend allowed Emperor Barbarosa to well curtail the power of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, up until his time, was much more powerful and important than the Church of Rome (Barbarosa led a crusade to liberate the Holy Land, and sacked Constantinople, killing tens of thousands of Christians there). Subsequently, Christianity became thought of as a Roman thing, of such antiquity that when Nero burned Rome (64 CE), it could be blamed on Christians. But those “Christians” must have been Essenes, or other messianistic precursors of the Christians, for that burning took place just a generation after the crucifixion we’re told of… there simply wasn’t time for Christianity to have become a threat to Nero, Emperor-god of a very formidable state.
Much as Amish and Mennonite traditionalists didn’t suddenly appear due to preachings of Menno Simons (early to mid 1500s), but surely must already have been living simple, traditional, religious lives when inspired by him, there were believers in the themes of the Sermon on the Mount well before New Testament history indicates it originating.
Now, with aboriginal cultures mostly destroyed, the wonder of living myth is largely becoming replaced by hollow, hurtful lies. It’s up to us to learn to tell the difference, and not go tramping on peoples’ rights in search of fabled cities of gold fabricated only to pacify the overly demanding.

Long, long ago, Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded, would disappear. It would then be renewed, but with different water, water which would drive men mad.
Only one man listened to this advice, collected water and arranged a secure place to store it. He waited then for the waters to change character.
On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water. When he saw, from his security, the waterfalls again beginning to flow, he descended again to walk among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking in an entirely different way from before, and seemed to have no memory of what had happened, nor of ever having been warned. After trying to talk to many, he realized they thought that he was mad, and showed either hostility or compassion, not understanding.
He went back to his concealment, and drew on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took a big decision and drank the new water - because he couldn’t bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.
Sometime later, a tyrannical ruler of Turkestan, listening to tales of a dervish such as the one just told, asked about Khidr.
‘Khidr’, said the dervish story-spinner, ‘comes in response to need. Seize his coat when he appears, and all-knowledge is yours.’
‘Can this indeed happen to anyone?’ asked the king.
‘Anyone capable,’ answered the dervish.
‘Who more “capable” than I?’ thought the king, and published a proclamation:
‘Whoever presents to me Invisible Khidr, Great Protector of Men, him shall I enrich.’
A very poor old man by the name of Bakhtiar Baba, hearing this cried by heralds, formed an idea. He said to his wife, ‘I have a plan. We shall soon be rich, but a little later I shall have to die. But this does not matter, for our riches will leave you well provided for.’
Then Bakhtiar went before the king and told him that he would find Khidr within forty days, if the king would give him a thousand pieces of gold. ‘If you find Khidr,’ said the king, ‘you shall have ten times this thousand pieces of gold. If you do not, you will die, executed at this very spot as a warning to those who trifle with kings.’
Bakhtiar accepted, returned home, gave the money to his wife (enough to provision her for the rest of her life), and spent forty days in contemplation, preparing for the other life.
On the fortieth day he went before the king. ‘Your Majesty,’ he said, ‘your greed caused you to think that money would produce Khidr. But Khidr, as is related, does not appear in response to something given from a position of greed.’
The king was furious. ‘Wretch, you have forfeited your life: who are you to trifle with the aspirations of a king?’
Bakhtiar said: ‘Legend has it that any man may meet Khidr, but the meeting will be fruitful only in so far as that man’s intentions are correct. Khidr, they say, visits to the extent and for the period that you are worth his while being visited. This is something over which neither you nor I has any control.’
‘Enough of this wrangling!’ said the king, ‘It won’t prolong your life. It only remains to ask my ministers for advice on the best way to put you to death.’
He turned to his First Wazir and said: ‘How shall this man die?
The First Wazir said: ‘Roast him alive, as a warning.’
The Second Wazir, speaking in order of precedence, said: ‘Dismember him, limb from limb.’
The Third Wazir suggested: ‘Provide him with the necessities of life, instead of forcing him to cheat in order to provide for his family.’
While this discussion was going on, an ancient sage had walked into the assembly hall. After the Third Wazir had spoken, he said: ‘Every man opines in accordance with his permanent hidden prejudices.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked the king.
‘I mean your First Wazir was originally a baker, so he speaks in terms of roasting. The Second Wazir used to be a butcher, and talks about dismemberment. Your Third Wazir, having made a study of statecraft, sees the origin of the matter.
‘Note two things. First, that Khidr appears and serves each man in accordance with that man’s ability to profit by his coming. Second, note that this man Bakhtiar, whom I name Baba in token of his sacrifice, was driven by despair to do what he did. He increased his necessity and accordingly made me appear to you.’
As they watched, the ancient sage melted before their eyes. Trying to do what Khidr directed, the king gave a permanent allowance to Bakhtiar. The First Two Wazirs were dismissed, and the thousand pieces of gold were returned to the royal treasury by the grateful Bakhtiar Baba and his wife.

The name of that tale, “The Increasing of Necessity,” comes from a famous poem of Jalaudin Rumi:
New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity.
Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.

A third story, ‘The Food of Paradise’, also told in Tales of the Dervishes by Indries Shah, ©1967, Penguin Books NY, may help to illustrate:
YUNUS, the son of Adam, decided one day not only to cast his life in the balance of fate, but to seek the means and reason of the pro vision of goods for man.
‘I am, he said to himself, ‘a man. As such I get a portion of the world’s goods, every day. This portion comes to me by my own efforts, coupled with the efforts of others. By simplifying this process, I shall find the means whereby sustenance comes to mankind, and learn something about how and why. I therefore adopt the religious way, which exhorts man to rely upon almighty God. Rather than live in the world of confusion, where food and other things come through society, I shall throw myself upon the direct support of the Power which rules over all. Beggars depend upon intermediaries, charitable men and women subject to secondary impulses, who give goods or money because they have been trained to do so. I shall accept no such indirect contributions.’
So saying, he walked into the countryside, throwing himself upon the support of invisible forces with the same resolution with which he had accepted the support of visible ones, when he had been a teacher.
He fell asleep, certain that Allah would take complete care of his interests, just as the birds and beasts were catered for in their realm. At dawn the bird chorus awakened him, and the son of Adam lay still at first, waiting for his sustenance to appear. In spite of his reliance upon the invisible force and his confidence that he would be able to understand it when it started its operations in the field into which he had thrown himself, he began to realize that speculative thinking alone would not help him. Still, he lay by the Tigris riverside, spending the day observing nature, peering at the fish in the waters, saying his prayers. From time to time rich and powerful men passed by, accompanied by glitteringly accoutered outriders on the finest horses, harness-bells jingling imperiously to signal their right of way; these merely shouted a salutation at the sight of his venerable turban. Parties of pilgrims also passed, chewing hard bread and dried cheese, which served but to sharpen his appetite for even the humblest of food.
‘This is but a test, and all will soon be well,’ thought Yunus, as he said his fifth prayer of the day, and wrapped himself in contemplation after the manner taught by a dervish of great perceptive attainments.
Another night passed.
As Yunus sat staring at the sun’s broken lights reflected in the mighty Tigris, five hours after dawn on the second day, something bobbing in the reeds caught his eye. This was a packet, enclosed in leaves and bound around with palm-fiber. Yunus waded into the river and possessed himself of the unfamiliar cargo.
It weighed about three-quarters of a pound. As he unwound the fiber a delicious smell came to his nostrils. He was the owner of a quantity of the halva of Baghdad. This halva, composed of almond paste, rosewater, honey, nuts and other precious elements, is not only prized for its taste but esteemed as a health-giving food. Harem beauties nibbled it for its flavor; warriors carried it on campaigns because of its sustaining power. It’s been used for treating a hundred ailments.
‘My belief is vindicated!’ exclaimed Yunus. ‘Now, if a similar quantity of halva, or the equivalent, comes to me on the waters, daily or at needed intervals, I shall know the means ordained by providence for my sustenance, and will then only have to use my intelligence to seek the source.’
For the next three days, at exactly the same hour, a packet of halva floated into Yunus’ hands. This, he decided a discovery of the first magnitude. Simplify your circumstances and Nature continues to operate in a roughly similar way. This alone seemed important enough that he almost felt impelled to share it with the world. For has it not been said: ‘When you know, you must teach’? But then he realized that he did not know: he only experienced. The obvious next step was to follow the halva, going upstream until he arrived at the source. He would then understand not only its origin, but the means whereby it was set aside for his explicit use.
For many days Yunus traveled, and each day, with the same regularity but at a time correspondingly a little earlier, the halva appeared. Each day, he ate it.
Eventually Yunus saw that the river, instead of narrowing as one might expect at the upper part, had widened considerably. In the middle of the broad expanse of water was a fertile island, and on the island stood a mighty, yet beautiful, castle. It was from here, he determined, that the food of paradise originated.
As he was considering his next step, Yunus saw a tall and unkempt dervish, with the matted hair of a hermit and a cloak of multi-colored patches, appear before him.
‘Peace, Baba, Father,’ he said.
‘Ishq, Hoo!’ shouted the hermit. ‘And what is your business here?’
‘I am following a sacred quest,’ explained the son of Adam, ‘and must in my search reach yonder castle. Have you perhaps an idea how this might be accomplished?
‘As you seem to know nothing about the castle, in spite of having a special interest in it,’ answered the hermit, ‘I will tell you about it.
‘Firstly, the daughter of a king lives there, imprisoned and in exile, attended by numerous beautiful servitors, it is true, but constrained nevertheless. She is unable to escape the man who captured her and placed her there because she would not marry him, as he has erected formidable and inexplicable barriers, invisible to the ordinary eye. You would have to overcome them to enter the castle and find your goal.’
‘How can you help me?’
‘I am on the point of starting on a special journey of dedication. Here, however, is a word and exercise, the Wazifa, which will, if you are worthy, help to summon the invisible powers of benevolent Jinns, creatures of fire who alone can combat the magical forces which hold the castle locked. Upon you peace.’ And, after repeating strange sounds and moving with a dexterity and agility truly wonderful in a man of his venerable appearance, he wandered on off, away.
Yunus sat for days practising his Wazifa and watching for the appearance of the halva. Finally, one evening as he looked at the setting sun shining upon a turret of the castle, he saw a wonderous sight. There, shimmering with unearthly beauty, stood a maiden, who must of course be the princess. She stood for an instant looking into the sun, then dropped into the waves which lapped far beneath her, onto the castle rocks — a packet of halva. Here, then, was the immediate source of his bounty.
‘The source of the Food of Paradise!’ cried Yunus. Now he was almost on the very threshold of truth. Sooner or later the Commander of the Jinns, whom through his dervish Wazifa he was calling, must come, and would enable him to reach the castle, the princess, and the truth!
No sooner had these thoughts passed through his mind than he found himself being carried away through the skies! Quickly, he arrived at what seemed to be an ethereal realm, filled with houses of breathtaking beauty. He entered one, and there stood a creature like a man, who was not a man: young in appearance, yet wise and ageless. ‘I’, said this vision, ‘am the Commander of the Jinns, and I have had thee carried here in answer to thy pleading and the use of those Great Names which were supplied to thee by the Great Dervish. What can I do for thee?’
‘0h mighty Commander of all the Jinns,’ trembled Yunus, ‘I am a Seeker of the Truth. The answer to it is only to be found by me in the enchanted castle, near which I was standing when you called me here. Give me, I pray, the power to enter this castle and talk to the imprisoned princess.’
‘So shall it be!’ exclaimed the Commander. ‘But be warned, first of all, that a man gets answer to his questions only in accordance with his fitness to understand, as results from his own preparation.’
‘Truth is truth,’ said Yunus, ‘and I will have it, no matter what it may be. Grant me this boon!’
Soon he was speeding back in a decorporealized form (by the magic of the Jinn) accompanied by a small band of Jinni servitors, charged by their Commander to use their special skills to aid this human being in his quest. In his hand Yunus grasped a special mirror-stone which the Jinn chief had instructed him to turn towards the castle to be able to see the hidden defenses.
Through this device the son of Adam saw that the castle was protected from assault by a row of terrible, invisible giants, who smote anyone who approached. Some Jinns proficient at the task cleared them away. Next Yunus was able to perceive an invisible web, or net, which hung all around the castle. This was destroyed by Jinns with the special cunning needed to break the net. Finally there was an invisible mass as of stone, which, without making an impression, filled the space between the castle and the river bank. This was also overthrown by the skills of the Jinns. They then made their salutations and flew fast as light, back to their abode.
Yunus then saw that a bridge, by its own power, had emerged from the river-bed. He was able to walk dry-shod into the very castle. A soldier at the gate took him immediately to the princess, who now appeared even more beautiful than she had at first.
‘We are grateful to you for your services in destroying the defenses which made this prison secure,’ said the lady. ‘I may now return to my father and want only to reward thee for thy sufferings. Speak, name it, and it shall be given to thee.’
‘Incomparable pearl,’ said Yunus, ‘there is only one thing which I seek, and that is truth. As it is the duty of all who have truth to give it to those who can benefit from it, I adjure you, Highness, to give me the truth which is my need.’
‘Speak, and such truth as it is possible to give will freely be thine.’
‘Very well, your Highness. How, and by what order, is the Food of Paradise, the wonderful halva which you throw down everyday for me, ordained to be deposited thus?’
‘Yunus, son of Adam,’ exclaimed the princess, ‘the halva, as you call it, I throw down each day is in fact just the residue of cosmetic materials I use to rub myself, after my daily bath of asses’ milk!’
‘I have at last learned’, said Yunus, ‘that the understanding of a man is conditional upon his capacity to understand. For you, the remains of your daily toilet. For me, the Food of Paradise.’
All tales, and histories, even news reports, must be taken as such – more valuable to some than to others; in some times and circumstances, of more import than in others. All according to need, and what one is able to perceive!
Our thinking tends to be simplistic – it’s easier that way! – and we neglect to consider things often really rather obvious. We prefer a memorable story to a complicated history. And history is much more complicated that what gets taught as that. Histories of intercultural interactivity, of disease, food, money, music, language and thought are much less known than of trade, medicine, artistry, tools, warfare, political organization and empire building. Life is always as full of surprises as it is of repetitions, and some now are learning how the first set of histories determined most of the second.
As most find neither time nor funds for extensive education, myth remains essential – but under-utilized in our monolithic atmosphere of global corporate gobbling! Myth can convey much, quickly – but might not too great interest in them also be seen as a kind of averice?

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