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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anamism, minor deities and truth

Our lives are mostly but vanity, illusion, risk, mental and perceptual insufficiency and sleep. Often it’s a challenge to distinguish fact from fancy, truth from deception, knowledge from baseless assertion. Education is meant to help with this, especially what has come to be called “the liberal arts.” A smattering of understanding from at least most varieties in the spectrum of educational subjects is essential to avoid getting bamboozled, especially as there now are so many looking to bamboozle. We look for ways to explain things, predict events, make successful arrangements, and look like idiots as seldom as possible. It’s a challenge. Little is known for absolute sure. Going with what worked for close predecessors is a widely preferred technique, but whether everything changes or not, a lot does, often quickly and frequently. Salesmen, ministers, politicians, diplomats, lawyers, international bankers, writers and many others have been known to take advantage of public gullibility. Believe me. It happens. You can trust me.
Going back to early days of recorded thought, things get a bit murky, but we can also get to some basics. Charlatans, sophists and usurpers often worked to manipulate what tended to be perceived as fact, and many met with some success. Some beliefs have kept more interest than others, though, and while even historians and scientists have been known to be wrong, sometimes even intentionally so, there remains a core of meaningful stuff to draw on. The oldest of that we call mythology.

The myth of Orpheus is beautiful, but what do we learn from it? Maybe a bit about morphia, er, Morphius, the Ancient Greek God of Dreams…
Long ago, Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves did much, and at length, to elucidate upon and explain the significance and importance of myth and its place in our lives and history, but sometimes it’s hard to separate wheat from chaff. I’ll let readers explore writings of those two for themselves, except to mention a few salient points. Anteros, Aristaeus, Atropos, Clotho, Dike, Gaia, Hebe, Hermaphroditus, Hesperus, Nephele, Proteus, Thetis and dozens of others were Eastern Mediterranean deities (Greek) of 2500 or so years ago, mostly forgotten now. Interesting characters, nonetheless. Most cultures have had a plethora of minor deities, with myth acting to reveal hidden significances and help infuse our limited minds with some understanding of the workings of our world.
As Taoism began changing into religion, a couple millennium ago, it took from older religions, as new religions do. Details about the variety of Taoist deities are more accessible than ones from the ancient Greeks. Naiads, dryads, nymphs and demons were embraced; gods of river confluences, crossroads, mountaintops, shady groves and types of business grew in number. The Celestial emperor’s generals, the god of the guards in the border between Heaven and Earth, at least one God of Time, a Supreme Commander of thunder, gods of house foundations, of gates, doors, water pipes, kitchens and wells; gods of medicine, gods who rule over job advancement, gods of wealth (some of whom have ambassadors), gods of the arts and education… a guardian goddess of beds; gods of war, armies and the protection of soldiers; a protector goddess of sailors; gods of farms and fields; gods of clothing and silk-worms; gods of metal-smithing and related business; gods of protection from disaster and disease; gods and goddesses of protection for children; gods of protection of deceased spirits; gods to protect people of certain Chinese surnames; and various gods of the underworld (King of Hell, Bai Wu Chang, Bai Wu Chang and many more). Pilgrims and other travelers, penitents, recluses and insane people would, as in other religions and all over the world, have their own particular saints, spirits or overseers. Xuan Wu Dadi (Dark Lord of the North, the Lord of True Martiality, North Lord Xuan Wu, Lord Black, or Lord of Black Martiality) ranks in popularity just behind Kuan Yin and Guan Gong. He’s usually depicted in black robes, holding a sword and wearing a jade belt, long black hair flowing freely down his back. He’s particularly worshipped by Chinese martial artists. Tai Yi Jiu Ku Tian Cun (Heavenly Worthy Tai Yi, the Savior from Suffering), one of Taoism's most important Gods, rules the 10-stage Taoist Hell. After death, all human souls must appear before Tai Yi and be sentenced. In modern China people continue to worship the God of Wealth, and businesses across East Asia routinely maintain an altar in his honor. Tsao Wand, God of the Hearth, purportedly reports annually on each family to the Jade Emperor; the family has good or bad luck during the coming year according to these reports. Tu-Ti local gods are minor gods of towns, villages and even streets and households. Though hardly the most important gods in the divine scheme, they’re popular; usually portrayed as kindly, respectable old men, they see to it that the domains under their protection run smoothly. In traditional China, every village had a shrine to a local Earth God, who was in charge of administering local affairs, primarily agricultural and weather-related. These Gods weren’t all-powerful, but rather modest Heavenly bureaucrats to whom individual villagers could turn in times of need, famine, drought, etc. Often called “Grandpa,” which reflects his close relationship to the common people, Tu-ti typically wears a black hat and red robe.
Yeng-Wang-Yeh, Lord Yama is the greatest of the Lords of Death, judge of all souls newly arrived to the land of the dead. He decides whether to send them to a special court for punishment or put them back on the Wheel of Transmigration. Man Cheung (Wen-chang in Putonghua), is said to have been a handsome man of Szechwan during the T’ang Dynasty. After several reincarnations, he was deified in the Yuan period, 1314 CE. It’s said he transformed himself 98 times, wrought numerous magnificently wonderful effects, promoted all three national religions (Confucian, Buddhism and Taoism), and equals in authority the 3 rulers of heaven, earth, and sea, and assists those seeking office, or taking examinations.
P’an-Chin-Lien is Goddess of prostitutes. After her husband died, she saw little reason to remain faithful… she became “much too liberal and inventive with her favors” and her infuriated father-in-law killed her. Her more professional associates (professional for charging money, anyway) honored the tragedy of her death, and eventually she rose to be the goddess of sexual entertainers.
Zhang Sanfeng was a Ming Dynasty Immortal credited with inventing the martial art of tai-chi quan. Regarded as a founder of internal martial arts, Heavenly Master Zhang (officially, Zhang Dao Ling) founded the Five Pecks of Rice Sect, dedicated to a somewhat socialist society worshiping through spirit-writing, mediumship, and other occult practices. The sect eventually grew into one of Taoism's most popular, and remains active.
These deities changed over time, in the way of myths. The changes can be seen as progressions, cycles, spirals, or recurrent dreams with but focus, mood or some details altering according to the needs of those who might listen.
It’s basically animism, where everything’s a symbolic representation, or reflection, or everything, or at least something, else. I once knew a sharp Thai Buddhist lesbian who’d leave offerings to a lingam-phallic cement telephone-pole… her girlfriend was of course quite manly, with short hair, cowboy shirts and jeans. I never asked if they used a dildo. At any rate, in ancient belief systems, everything has a mystical connection through which one can attempt to manipulate it. Now we pretend to pull strings in different ways.
Are animistic beliefs worse than more “modern” ones? Need we feel lost in a sea of misinformation? Perhaps. Would there be double-digit trillions of debt in this our overheated world if we weren’t?

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