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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Empire of Truth

Here in Chiang Rai, Thailand, between WiangPaPao and MaeSuai on Rt 118, at Ban MaePrik, is a Phra Naresuan shrine. At the back is a huge map purporting to be of King Naresuan’s empire, about 1600 CE. The area claimed for him is huge, encompassing Laos, much of Burma, a lot of Yunnan, the Thai/Malay isthmus and of course all of present Thailand. The map is a result of nationalist fantasy. The concept of a country, or of geographical boundaries, didn’t exist here back then. A king ruled people, including other kings (often relatives), not area. Tribute was paid, and this gets misinterpreted as a kind of tax affirming subject status. But were this the actual case, Southeast Asia would have been a part of China. No-one claims that.
The reason I’m bothered about this is another map, purportedly of the Khmer Empire of 900 CE, which includes all of Laos, some of Vietnam and Yunnan, and a lot of the isthmus. It’s ridiculous. Wikipedia, which shows that map (it also appears elsewhere on the Net), has become used as a propaganda device, manipulated, censored and sometimes controlled by powers with other concerns than truth. For instance, try finding out about the nefarious influence the sugar industry on international politics. You won’t get much of its sordid history. Or look up Armenia. You’ll no longer find that that country has been in four separate, non-contiguous locations. Explanation of WWI as the result of power vacuums resultant from decadence and decline in the Asutro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires should surely be easier to find. The internet isn’t supposed to be this way.
We need to be able to return to the challenges of conflicting viewpoints and messages, varied interpretations of information, and the right of people to challenge authority. But authority, as ever in the clutches of power madness, strenuously disapproves of that. Stuff needs to be swept under the rug or otherwise hidden away, so that the status quo will only be changed in the direction of, well, of destabilizing the power system by too rigorously reinforcing it.
Human power is never permanent. No matter what it does, power can’t stop change, can’t dictate what is real, and can’t reinvent the world. People in Laos KNOW they were never ruled by Khmers (well, except in the far south). People here in Chiang Rai, and north of here, know this too. Most interested historians also know it.
When fact presentation becomes overly influenced by special interests (nationalism, self-interest, corporate greed) instead of based on unbiased faith in truth as instrumental for the greater good, we get knowledge stratification at best, or, far too often, knowledge suppression. An inability to share is also an inability to enjoy the true fruits of labor, inspiration and intelligent, dedicated focus.
To understand the rise and fall of empires, the migrations of peoples, changes in linguistic usage and awareness, to truly know anything of our development, it’s necessary to contain the ego and stifle many desires. That the result can be worth it needs no proof.
The dark, curly-haired populace of Oc Eo and Funan were surely people who followed coastlines (back then lower) from Africa to Australia. They are no longer much in evidence in Cambodia, and one reason is wars of conquest which brought in other peoples – often highland ones.
Trying to administer distant peoples was only a recent folly; Angkor never tried to rule northern Laos, or the Thai/Malay isthmus. There is no reason to think they could have. Even Naresuan didn’t try to administer what he “conquered”! It was understood that distance from power-centers lessens power.
Much published research isn’t available to me; Amazon doesn’t want to ship here (Thailand) and purchasing electronic downloads sight-unseen makes little sense to me. I can’t afford it anyway, not and feed my children. It would be nice if the internet would provide better forums for discussion, but I suppose that would require an absurd new form of ‘peer-review’: deciding who has the right to the attention of whom.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Magical, and religious, thinking

Most of us engage in it. Indeed, it seems everyone does at least sometimes. It’s a semi-rational approach helpful in the face of irrationality. Defined as believing events happen as a result of other events, without plausible link of causation (or, belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome), it’s a kind of wishful thinking. Simply in order to live we must believe some things without proof.
The sorts of magical thinking are many and vary widely, from luck superstition to religion to belief in abstract mathematics to hope that the Hadron Collider will “unlock” secrets and supply answers to some of life’s deep mysteries.
When trying to understand the opposite sex, the behavior of small children, death, international finance, war, or GMOs, we inevitably, but usually without recognizing it, turn to magical thinking.
To break a bad habit like reliance on intoxicants, many fear that will-power alone won’t do. They might replace one crutch with another, as in meetings with coffee for beer in bars. Works like magic.
To save for the future some become penny-wise but pound-foolish, which works like magic too, as magic has a tendency to bite one in the ass. Get a personal trainer or spiritual adviser and you can accomplish things you otherwise wouldn’t, in much the same way that a St. Christopher medallion can help one reach a destination, with or without high holy Catholic church sanction.
Confidence lends to increased competence, and also, in the opposite way, worry undermines our abilities and effectiveness.
Make sacrifices, wear the right colors, follow the instructions of a food guru, rigorously adhere to a schedule of placebo ingestion, and you’ll surely do better than you’d have done by just being lazy. It’s not just magic, it’s a process of abiding by a decision. When you feel like you’ve done something, it’s almost like you have.

Science has yet to explain all that much of what we experience, and perhaps cannot, so we naturally grasp at straws, at anything we can to make sense of things and allow us some hope. The only real differences between magical world-views and science is that science has a self-correcting mechanism and procedure for determining which concept best fits what is observed, while magic doesn’t.
Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner showed that pigeons frequently repeat actions they learn to associate with positive reinforcement, i.e. when food was released to them, as if seeing a pattern, even when the food in fact becomes released at purely random intervals (intermittent reinforcement). When hungry, they'll do what once brought them food. Once a mental association is formed, it becomes like a habit, hard to break. Superstition and behaviors often characterized as “magical thinking” may be more closely connected with blind instinct than with sapient thought, or perhaps it's that established patterns tend to replicate, sometimes inexplicably.
Magical thinking, involving as it does, several elements, including belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections, invests special powers and forces in many things seen as symbols. The majority of the world’s peoples believe in real connections between symbols and their referents, and that some real and potentially measurable power or influence flows between them. There might be neurobiological basis for this, though the meaning, significance and specifics of symbols aren’t absolute, but culturally determined. Magical thinking accepts that transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, &/or that one’s thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information, and often, that wishing something can cause it to occur. Thoughts, words or actions assume a magical power, are able to prevent or cause events to happen without a physical action occurring; thinking equates with doing, and the individual assumes an importance rational science or philosophy is hard put to allow.
Thus, while appetite for such beliefs may appear to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, it is also ego-reinforcing. Sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, helps soothe everyday fears and wards off mental distress. But in excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behaviors. People who fashion themselves skeptics may yet cling to odd rituals that have no clear semblance to sense, yet can generate helpful faith – until they undermine genuinely productive efforts and become disabling.
The brain apparently has networks that specialize in producing explicit, magical explanations, in some circumstances, connecting otherwise unconnected dots, so to speak, in a manner easily preferred to rational explanations. A constant state of negotiation with the world results in bribery, promises, repetitious activity and sacrifices that cannot be scientifically demonstrated to achieve any results except to provide a kind of anxiety reducing reassurance, reassurance perhaps necessary.

Seven “laws” of magical thinking have been posited: “Objects Carry Essences” - everyday items become emotionally significant by taking on the spirit of their previous owners or unique pasts. “Symbols Have Power” - we confuse symbolic associations in our minds for causal relationships in the world. “Actions Have Distant Consequences” - superstitious rituals and attempts to channel luck through physical acts can bolster confidence. “The Mind Knows No Bounds” - belief in mind over matter, extrasensory perception, and transcendent experiences cannot be totally discounted. “The Soul Lives On” - it’s hard to believe that your mind dies when your body does. “The World Is Alive” - we often treat inanimate objects as conscious. And “Everything Happens for a Reason” as long as we insist that higher powers guide natural events. These “laws” apply equally to religion, ’though most Believers make clear distinction between Faith and magic!

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Some personal intellectual history

When I was a child, for a summer I was also a guinea-pig. At that time I also attended an experimental school with “modular” scheduling. My father, who was programming the teaching machines I was a test subject on, had been an army private in the Philippines in the Big War, and introduced me to a young Filipino son of an associate. That lad and I discovered that the modular system was too confusing not only for us, but for the teachers, and that we could attend whatever class we preferred as long as we did so together. We went to lots of science classes where we put plants in cupboards to prove they need sunlight, and also some gym and recess, but frequently just wandered the halls, looking into classrooms. We may well have learned more than the other kids. At the teaching machine I doubt I learned anything, but the next year, in Bangkok, I learned how to teach a pigeon in a box to turn around or peck on command, a skill which for over 50 years I have forborne from utilizing. My father started the first department of psychology in Thailand; Thais don’t care much for Freud or the social science pabulum popular in the 60s. While his approach suited them, it was controversial back home. My mother, a red haired harpist from Appalachia, tolerated 14 moves in 18 years, then tenaciously stayed 38 years in the same place, with the same phone number, as her three sons left the nest (with occasional returns). Strong beliefs, or should I say, unshakable understandings, can sometimes play havoc upon domestic tranquility.
My father, scientist of learning and training, failed to note how much domestic intranquility can affect domestic animals. When after 10 months teaching at the University of Indiana we had to move on, as usual to a better job, my mother didn’t respond well to the need to pack up once again. My dog got hold of a piece of chicken, my father feared the chicken bones might get caught in the dog’s throat and tried to entice it with a piece of steak. My mother didn’t respond well to that, and the dog growled at my father. Thus my only real friend for ten months was “put down” for “distemper” and I was packed off to live with my father’s younger sister and family in Mexico City. I’d ridden a train south before, but this time it broke down and I ended up on a bus. When I got off at Laredo, I had no idea what to do. No-one had explained to me that the Farias family in Mexico would be under Barlow in the phone directory and all back home had gone out to a movie. The phone operator came and got me, put me up for a night, put me back on a train in the morning, and I got a dollar for the phone company making an ad out of the incident. I have dogs and chickens (which I do not train) and feed chicken bones to the dogs frequently.
When I got back from Mexico, a “generation gap”“youth rebellion” had broken out. Why respect the dictates of authority that fails to live up to its own mandates? Thumbing noses at authority had always seemed cool; now it had become a social imperative. I did notice, though, that almost no-one had a clear conception of exactly WHY the war we were foolishly engaged in was wrong. Mostly it was a severely obnoxious inconvenience that could get one killed, which is indeed pretty bad, but I already knew we’d long been bombing people I actually LIKED.
My father had grown up with similar understanding. Although a boy in Gallipolis, city of French “Gauls”, there were German speakers there, and his mother’s father, Sheriff Sullivan, attended a meeting of them in 1914. We’d end up in the war, they decided, and that presented opportunity for the forsightful. But which side would we go in on? They decided on the German side, and several left to join the German army, get a jump on advancement opportunities. After that war, Sheriff Sullivan’s son-in-law, who’d become the last living officer on his side of a battlefield and called a retreat against a standing order from his dead superiors and almost got courts-martialed for it, sent my father to Germany to insure that he knew that the people we were sure to fight against again were actually people. That worked so well that in the Philippines, when his troop wanted to shoot surrendering Japanese, my father suggested that if they did so he’d shoot them. They didn’t take him seriously, but didn’t kill the Japanese either.
In Bangkok, our apartment building housed US airmen who got ahold of the first James Bond 007 movie and a projector and let us kids sit on the floor as they watched it, talked and drank beer. They soon forgot about us little ones, and one expressed dismay at the bombing they’d just done in Thailand’s northeast (bombing that the US still hasn’t acknowledged it ever did). I had a crush on our young housemaid at the time; she was from Chiang Mai, not Isaan, but nevermind. I was dismayed. Suspicion of authority, and those who adhere to its dictates, has abided since.
My great grandmother relocated to Mexico, maybe about 1930, I don’t know exactly why… (she moved to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, once proclaimed best city in the world, and died there in 1952 at 96 years of age, 35 years after her husband, with whom she is buried in Ohio); her son my grandfather became head of the Veterans’ Administration for US expat veterans in Mexico in the late 40s. My father’s youngest sister married the son of the head of the Mexican highway department, who’d accomplished the building of 300 kilometers of highway in 30 years, and become quite wealthy doing it. Somehow he lost his position and money, and his son took over the work, but abandoned his children for his wife’s best friend. My generation of that family are the only extended family I have that maintain any contact with me – a matter, I suppose, or protection of sense of pride. We all tend to have some sense of pride, but also memories from which we prefer to hide. One of mine involves from trying to hide from failure to understand things no-one can understand, although many love to pretend to. My recourse in the face of fake intellectualism at a fancy college was, for a while, needles and hard drugs. I got over both problems, but feel thankful and lucky that I was able to do so.
We lived a couple years in Holland, Michigan, where I experienced some good public schooling. I also got more credits than contemporaries in upstate New York, where we next moved. I discovered that that meant I could graduate a year early, and hating school, did so. But my parents then moved to New York City, which I was somewhat familiar with but not ready to adjust to living in. And I was only 16. Only one college had accepted me. I’d interviewed there then written to say that I felt too young to matriculate. A reply suggested I leave that decision to my elders and betters. Before even applying, I had effectively been accepted to one of the USA’s finest colleges, leaving me but little alternative but to attend.
Which didn’t go well. The dictatorial tutor of my required Ancient Greek class reminded me too much of my very Germanic German teacher back in Bangkok, who’d intimidated us into not only taking dictation in German, but memorizing parts to a play in it. At least I’d wanted to learn German. Ancient Greek was hardly as compelling.
The college was a tiny private one sustained by a romantic conceit of intellectual tradition capable of fostering, in the appropriately ready, rigorously accurate, veracious thought. As elitist as the naval academy across the street, adherents included descendants of the last vestiges of antebellum Southern intellectualism, some of the crème-de-la-Pittsburg, and a few venerators of lost languages and artistry. We sang in chorus, waltzed and played croquet for diversion, poured over ancient texts and studied the derivations of modern math and science. A distinct Jesuit influence could be discerned; conversion, er, reversion, to ‘Christianity’ by those ‘thinkers’ who had ever left the ‘fold’ is common.
Many antecedents surely loved Walter Scott, who, as Mark Twain wrote, "had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the [Civil] war" and Baudelaire called “that tedious author, a dusty exhumer of chronicles! A fastidious mass of descriptions of bric-a-brac ... and castoff things of every sort, armor, tableware, furniture, gothic inns, and melodramatic castles where lifeless mannequins stalk about, dressed in leotards.”

As a prospective student thinking of applying for entry, I’d noticed a long-haired bearded fellow with guitar on his back, and decided that if he could tolerate it, so could I. Turned out he’d just been a visitor. There were drugs around though, as, for almost a decade, substantially covering much of the time of my college and university experience, campuses of higher-ranked institutes of higher learning had a high incidence of high kids. I was one of them, but it was in the army that I was asked (by my master sergeant) for my pilot’s license, as I was “flying so high.” But hey, mood alterants and other drugs were ubiquitous. They still are. From on high we look down on those who actually do work, almost exclusively because they have no choice, and despise them as much as we rely on them. For we higher folk think, or at least think we think, and see that as a higher form of work.

After I got out of the army and had stayed intoxicated for a while, I started trying to write. After a while I had 20 pages I saw as a poetic essay. No-one was very impressed, but I kept on, and after a few years found a way to make a hundred page book. I gave a party when it was done. My friends demanded I do a reading. I realized something wasn’t right. I wanted to encourage folk to believe in themselves, not in me, but they didn’t see that, which disturbed me.

Much later, at a state university, a professor told a class I was attending that “the anguish of the hedonist is in that he cannot look into the eyes of his lover in the act of making love” and that “desire desires another desire”… The pretty girls in the class loved it, but not as much as the even prettier ones at a small Midwestern private college had loved it when a fraud of a psychology professor with no credentials in psychology (but a claim to fame in having hypnotized people into having perfect pitch) spent an entire class period explaining how difficult, nay, nearly impossible, it would be for him to explain to them the true meaning of a=a. Too profound for us lowly students, clearly.

Recently, Yahoo News put up something about scientists having created crystals from time. Which, I suppose, they kept in a bottle.
At my first college, where jacket and tie and formal address (Mr or Ms, whatever) even for other students, was required, along with its all-required curriculum, we discussed “Saint” Anselm’s assertion that “God is that than which no greater can be conceived.” Sorry, too profound for YOU, surely. “God is the greatest of all things” is just a platitudinous non-sequitur. But change the verbal order to something obtuse, grammatically clumsy if not just plain wrong, and poof, hey presto, you’ve almost got something profound! What the human capacity for conception has to do with it I don’t know, but make like even greater conceivers than humans can’t do a thing, whatever thing it might be, and you've pretended to wisdom greater than a human possibly could have. Which, of course, many find impressive.
After two years and “enabelling” (hey presto, being recognized as “a scholar and a gentleman” and part of the scholastic community!) I got to take an elective class. I chose one on Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote of the “nexus of the nexus” and other complete rot. We were clearly supposed to accept without question that that had meaning, almost as much as Anslem’s assertion, even, and pretend to be able to wrap out heads around it - or fail. Bertrand Russell at least admitted, repeatedly, that his obtuse verbal constructions were wrong, but quite generously always provided another wrong construction to replace the previous one. Alfy didn’t. Seems likely to me that he accepted conventional British wisdom of the time that 90% of all that can be known was already known.

For a while I was self-employed. I sold Pueblo Indian pottery and dolls, some Mexican art, handicrafts and toys, Balinese stuff… I worked for years on a novel about my relationship with a Hopi. It was very confusing work, frustrating, time consuming, exasperating and rewarding only through what I gained in self-awareness. No-one was much impressed, but I kept at it. Eventually I began work on other writing, and eventually had a dozen books no-one was very impressed with. But I’d learned quite a lot by doing them, more than I’d learned by doing anything else, at least until I really began to attain fluency in Thai, and was raising three boys and a young woman from a jungle opium fiefdom, descendant of hunter-predators who didn’t see benefit in make-work. I learned some too, from building some houses, one of them underground (except for the roof). I also learned from medical problems.

I was pleased when I saw an article explaining that ‘post-construction’ literary criticism was in response to the failure of the student revolutions of 1967-68. If government could not be overthrown, at least academia could be undermined with ‘erudite’ BS. An example was made of an article written pretty much by a phrase-generator, with no inherent meaning, getting published in a ‘prestigious’ journal. I discovered the Deepac Chopra random phrase generator and fell in love with it. Endless nonsense! Pure power!
Unfortunately, susceptibility to meaningless BS has been a significant failure of the political Left. Economic ‘theory’, psychological speculation, historical revisionism (“The government of the USA killed 100 million Natives” and dares to complain about Hitler?)… In an anthropology class I learned that if I were to find an arrowhead at the edge of a corn-field, it would be morally incumbent upon me to immediately take it to a university and turn it over to an accredited professor. Yup, sure. Way to encourage kids to collect rocks and learn about the past. If you find some time in a bottle, be sure to turn it over to the National Space Agency pronto! They’ll need to examine the mass of its electrons.
Half a century ago folk still argued the relative merits of Lamarck and Mendel, despite their work having been done a century and more beforehand. The communistically inclined Lamarck-ians loathed proponents of Mendel, and the “western” business model, and vice versa. Despite that limitations to both models were readily observable, it was important to choose one or the other, and if your field of endeavor and paycheck involved genetics in any way, make a firm stand. Now many of us know of genetic sheathes and epigenetics (despite Monsanto and other GMO proponents resolutely ignoring that kind of information) and Lamarck and Mendel are all but forgotten (especially, in the West, Lamarck!). Pavlov supposedly made discoveries about the behavior of dogs, despite farmers and hunters having been aware of what he ‘found’ for millennia. ‘Science’ is full of such absurdities. Until BF Skinner, psychology was more pompous conjecture than science. Science gave us DDT, napalm and the atomic bomb, and claims to know more about electrons than it clearly does. Genetics has developed, in 50 years, more than physics did between Newton and Einstein, and people still accept the silly Schrödinger’s cat whatever, despite that the breathing of a still alive cat would impact OUTSIDE the box. Physicists love math, despite how clear it is that the concepts of zero, one and infinity are more than just limited in potential application, but lacking direct reference in the real, physical world.
The poststructuralist semiotics, narratology, (narrative and literary ‘Theory’) of Jean Baudrillard, Roland Gérard Barthes and other scholars of content-free Hermeneutics, obtuse verbiage meant more to suggest superior understanding than to convey meaning, will surely set you free. I mean it. Get cracking. How else will you sufficiently understand the Holy Trinity before you die?


Has science reverted to mythology, Ouroborus eating his tail?
Independent, professional reviews of academic articles, NOT by someone subject to the same pressures and constraints (“peer review”) could be helpful. An independent review board for politicians, to replace seniority for allocation of positions of power, could be a positive thing too.
I met a PhD candidate from the Univ. of Wisconsin who believed a preposterous theory by Yale Professor James Scott (“recognized worldwide as an eminent authority in Southeast Asian, peasant, and agrarian studies”) about a mountainous ‘refuge’ area he called “Zomia” (from here at the "Golden Triangle" through the Himalayas to Afghanistan) – to which many who refused to be governed supposedly fled. I’ve lived in that area 20 years, and written some local history about it. My wife, who is relatively anarchistic, is a tribal person of the area, from a bit further into the mountains than my stomping grounds. It’s my opinion that no evidence exists to back the theory. My ‘theory’ of Khom descendants of one-time rulers of Persia, architects of Angkor, may hold little more water than the theory of Zomia, and even be as fanciful, wishful and convenient to personally cherished hypotheses, but I present it as no more than lay speculation, a kind of myth to cover what remains otherwise unexplained (and in accordance with ideas posited by out of favor scholars). My point is that being an academic hardly makes one correct, or even likely to be so. Somehow standards have been far too lax, convenience far too important, and ego too involved in the mix. We are often misled.

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