Hear Laurie Anderson Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bardo

Laurie Anderson began her career as an artist in the late 1960s, and since then she's made connections both personal and professional with many of the most influential cultural figures of the past five decades. She has also, inevitably, seen a fair few of them depart this earthly existence, including her husband Lou Reed. The question of what happens to the dead is, for Anderson, apparently not without interest, even in the case of the non-human dead: the 2015 documentary Heart of a Dog traces the journey of Anderson's late pet Lolabelle through the bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism the liminal state between death and rebirth.

The bardo is the central theme of Bardo Thodol, better known to Westerners in translation as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. On the new album Songs from the Bardo, Anderson reads from that eighth-century text with improvisational accompaniment by, among others, Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and composer Jesse Paris Smith.

Stereogum's Peter Helman writes that "Smith, the daughter of punk legend Patti Smith" — one of the many still-living influential artists in Anderson's wide network — "first met Choegyal in 2008 at the annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall." Seven years later, they enlisted Anderson to narrate the first performed version of what would become Songs from the Bardo.

"Anderson narrates text from the Tibetan Book Of the Dead while Choegyal, Smith, cellist Rubin Kodheli, and percussionist Shahzad Ismaily provide the musical accompaniment," writes Helman. "Smith plays piano and creates drone beds using a collection of crystal bowls, while Choegyal incorporates traditional Tibetan instruments like lingbu (a bamboo flute), dranyen (a lute-like stringed instrument), singing bowls, gong, and his own voice." In the record's liner notes, Choegyal writes of trying to "channel the wisdom and traditions of my ancestors through my music in a very contemporary way while holding the depth of my lineage." The music, Anderson explains, "is meant to help you float out of your body, to go into these other realms, and to let yourself do that without boundaries."

You can get a taste of this transcendence from "Lotus Born, No Need to Fear" the first sample track from the album the group has released. On it Anderson reads of the experience of the bardo, where "consciousness becomes airy, speeding, swaying, and impermanent." For a Metafilter user named Capt. Renault, listening brings to mind another of Anderson's artworks: her virtual-realty piece Aloft, which "has you sitting in an empty airplane which disintegrates around you, leaving you high, high above the ground with no support. You are aware of the possibility of death, but Laurie's smooth, comforting voice leads to a complete absence of fear, and you are free to explore this world she's created. Because of Laurie, I faced my death and I didn't mind it."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Manuscript Reveals How Medieval Nun, Joan of Leeds, Faked Her Own Death to Escape the Convent

“The timeworn image of cloistered nuns as escapists, spurned lovers or naïve waifs has little basis in reality today,” wrote Julia Lieblich in a 1983 New York Times article, “The Cloistered Life.” “It takes more than a botched-up love affair to lure educated women in their 20’s and 30’s to the cloister in the 1980’s.”

The devotion that drew women to cloistered life in the fast-paced 80s, or today, also drew women in the middle ages. But in those days, an education was much harder to come by. Many women became nuns because no other opportunities were available. “Convent offerings,” Eudie Pak explains at History.com, “included reading and writing in Latin, arithmetic, grammar, music, morals, rhetoric, geometry and astronomy.” Other pursuits included “spinning, weaving and embroidery,” particularly among more affluent nuns.

Those “from lesser means were expected to do more arduous labor as part of their religious life.” Who knows what kinds of hardships 14th century Benedictine English nun Joan of Leeds endured while at St. Clement priory in York? The tedium alone may have driven her over the edge. Nor do we know why she first entered the convent—whether driven by faith, a desire for self-improvement, a “botched-up love affair,” or a less-than-voluntary commitment.

We know almost nothing of Joan’s life, except that at some time in 1318, she faked her death, left behind a fake body to bury, and escaped the convent to pursue what William Melton, then Archbishop of York, called “the way of carnal lust.” Joan’s sisters aided in her great escape, as the archbishop wrote in a letter: “numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful.”

The episode—or what we know of it from Melton’s register—struck University of York professor Sarah Rees Jones as “extraordinary—like a Monty Python sketch.” Joan’s story has become a highlight of The Northern Way, a project that “seeks to assess and analyze the political roles of the Archbishops of York over the period 1306-1406.” A number of records from the period have been digitized, including William Melton’s registry, in which Joan’s escape appears (see the page of scribal notes above).

One of the archbishop's roles involved interceding in such cases of runaway monks and nuns. “Unfortunately,” Rees Jones remarks, “we don’t know the outcome of the case” of Joan. Often, as one might expect, escapes like hers—though few as picaresque—had to do with “not wanting to be celibate…. Many of the people would have been committed to a religious house when they were in their teens, and then they didn’t all take to the religious life.”

The archbishop put matters rather less charitably: “Having turned her back on decency and the good of religion,” he writes, “seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

Or, as we might say today, she was ready to embark on a new life path. So desperately ready, it seems, that we might only hope Joan of Leeds remained “at large” and found happiness elsewhere. Learn more about The Northern Way project here.

via The Guardian/Medievalist

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Unexpected Ways Eastern Philosophy Can Make Us Wiser, More Compassionate & Better Able to Appreciate Our Lives

I feel compelled to start this post with a disclaimer: do not take the eight-and-a-half-minute video above, "Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy" from Alain de Botton’s School of Life series, as an authoritative statement on Eastern Philosophy.

Not that you would, or that de Botton makes such a claim, but in an age of uncritical overconsumption, infinite scrolling, and individually-wrapped explainers, it seems worth the reminder. No tradition—and certainly not one as incalculably rich, deep, and ancient as the schools of thought summed up as “Eastern Philosophy”—can be paraphrased in an animated list.

Think of “Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy” as a teaser. If you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that suffering is ever-present and universal—the first idea on de Botton’s list and the Buddha’s first Noble Truth—you might love… or make a good faith effort to appreciate… The Middle Length Discourses, the Shobogenzo, the poetry and songs of Han Shan and Milarepa, or the thousands of translations, commentaries, adaptations, and etcetera about them.

But the video isn't about famous texts. The logocentric characterization of philosophy as only writing persists, despite its serious limitations. In many Eastern traditions, writing and study are only one part of complex religious practices. The first two ideas on de Botton’s list come from early Indian Buddhism; the third from Chinese Chan Buddhism, the fourth and fifth are Daoist concepts; and the sixth, kintsugi, comes from Japanese Zen.

De Botton’s title is misleading. As he goes on to show, in brief, but with vivid examples and comparisons, these are not “ideas” in the broadly Platonic sense of pure abstractions but formalized ways of being with others and being alone, of being with objects and natural formations that embody ethical ideals of balance, equanimity, contentment, kindness, care, and deep appreciation for art and nature, with all their imperfections and disappointments.

Can we make much sense of the adoration of the bodhisattva Guanyin (whom de Botton compares to the Virgin Mary) if we never visit one of her temples or call for her compassionate aid? Can we study the subtleties of bamboo without bamboo? Can we grasp the Four Noble Truths if we can’t sit still long enough for serious self-reflection? Sometimes the practices, landscapes, and iconographies of Eastern philosophy do not seem separable from ideas about them.

If there’s a bow to tie on de Botton’s summary, maybe it’s this: from these Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the endless bifurcations of Western thought are illusory. Pain, imperfection, and uncertainly are inevitable and not to be feared but compassionately accepted. And philosophy is something that happens in the body and mind together, an idea certainly not alien to the walking thinkers of the West.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

Atheists & Agnostics Also Frequently Believe in the Supernatural, a New Study Shows

To be a non-believer in some parts of the world, and in much of Europe for many centuries, means to commit a crime against the state. Even where unbelief goes unpunished by the law, “atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers,” writes Scotty Hendricks at Big Think, “are among the most disliked, untrusted, and misunderstood people.” Identified with Satanists (who are equally misunderstood), non-believers are presumed to be anti-theists, hell bent on destroying, or at least maiming, religion with their know-it-all dogmatism and hatred of different beliefs.

There may be some projection going on here, and maybe it goes both ways at times, though the balance of power, at least in the U.S., decidedly tips in favor of certain dogmatic religions. But as a new whitepaper from the UK group Understanding Unbelief found, in a wide-ranging survey of non-believers in six countries around the world, “popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny.” The outlier here is the religiously inflamed U.S. “Although American atheists are typically fairly confident in their views about God, importantly, so too are Americans in general.”

The paper’s authors are professors in theology, psychology, anthropology, and religious studies from four major U.K. Universities. They outline their eight key findings at the outset, then get into specifics about what the data says and how it was obtained, with large, full-color charts and graphs. The study shows more agreement than most of us might assume between the religious and non-religious on “the values most important for ‘finding meaning in the world and your own life.’”

“Family” and “Freedom” ranked highly. “Less unanimously so,” did “’Compassion,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Science,’” which may come as little surprise. The social and political identifications of non-believers fluctuate widely between the six countries—Brazil, Denmark, Japan, China, the U.S., and the U.K.—but, “with only a few exceptions, atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity, and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature.”

These conclusions should interest non-believers and believers alike in the six countries surveyed, but the most sensational research finding states that “despite rejecting or at least questioning the notion of gods, unbelievers aren’t wholly divorced from superstitious belief,” writes Hendricks. The study’s authors put things in a more measured way: “only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists,” ruling out the supernatural entirely.

Hendricks lists some examples:

Up to third of self-declared atheists in China believe in astrology. A quarter of Brazilian atheists believe in reincarnation, and a similar number of their Danish counterparts think some people have magical powers.

These findings might be consistent with the study’s methodology, which surveyed people who agreed with either 1. I don’t believe in God [or other divinity or spirit] or 2. I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. Neither of these mutually excludes the à la carte spiritualism of astrology, reincarnation, or magic, a fact that many religious believers cannot wrap their heads around.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, belief in seances, tarot, mesmerism, and other seemingly supernatural phenomena flourished, quite often independently of particular religious belief systems. One of the most rational minds of the time, or the creator of the most rational mind of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in fairies. Pierre Curie “was an atheist who had an enduring, somewhat scientific, interest in spiritualism.”

The study’s findings are “in line,” Hendricks points out, “with previous studies that show non-believers are just as prone to irrational thinking as their religious counterparts.” Significant percentages of atheists and agnostics express some belief in astrology, karma, "a universal spirit or life force," and other supernatural phenomena. Hendricks quotes Michio Kaku’s suggestion that there may be “a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic.” I don’t believe geneticists have found such a thing. But culture, at any rate, is not reducible to biology.

The fact that humans see, hear, feel, and believe things that may not actually exist seems to be an evolutionary trait. What may be equally, if not more, interesting is the way those supernatural things, whatever they are, both resemble and vastly differ from each other, their cultural specificities woven inextricably into the texture of language and custom. What and how we think cannot be fully separated either from our genes or from the conceptual apparatus we inherit, and that forms our picture of the world. Read the full Understanding Unbelief study here.

via BigThink

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Kōlams, the Traditional Indian Patterns That Combine Art, Mathematics & Magic

Have accomplished abstract geometrical artists come out of any demographic in greater numbers than from the women of South Asia? Not when even the most demanding art-school curriculum can't hope to equal the rigor of the kōlam, a complex kind of line drawing practiced by women everywhere from India to Sri Lanka to Malaysia to Thailand. Using humble materials like chalk and rice flour on the ground in front of their homes, they interweave not just lines, shapes, and patterns but religious, philosophical, and magical motifs as well — and they create their kōlams anew each and every day.

"Feeding A Thousand Souls: Kōlam" by Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

"Taking a clump of rice flour in a bowl (or a coconut shell), the kōlam artist steps onto her freshly washed canvas: the ground at the entrance of her house, or any patch of floor marking an entrypoint," writes Atlas Obscura's Rohini Chaki.

"Working swiftly, she takes pinches of rice flour and draws geometric patterns: curved lines, labyrinthine loops around red or white dots, hexagonal fractals, or floral patterns resembling the lotus, a symbol of the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, for whom the kōlam is drawn as a prayer in illustration."

Colorful Kolam - Sivasankaran - Own work

Kōlams are thought to bring prosperity, but they also have other uses, such as feeding ants, birds, and other passing creatures. Chaki quotes University of San Francisco Theology and Religious Studies professor Vijaya Nagarajan as describing their fulfilling the Hindu "karmic obligation" to "feed a thousand souls." Kōlams have also become an object of genuine interest for mathematicians and computer scientists due to their recursive nature: "They start out small, but can be built out by continuing to enlarge the same subpattern, creating a complex overall design," Chaki writes. "This has fascinated mathematicians, because the patterns elucidate fundamental mathematical principles."

"Kolam" by resakse is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Like any traditional art form, the kōlam doesn't have quite as many practitioners as it used to, much less practitioners who can meet the standard of mastery of completing an entire work without once standing up or even lifting their hand. But even so, the kōlam is hardly on the brink of dying out: you can see a few of their creators in action in the video at the top of the post, and the age of social media has offered kōlam creators of any age — and now even the occasional man — the kind of exposure that even the busiest front door could never match. Some who get into kōlams in the 21st century may want to create ones that show ever more complexity of geometry and depth of reference, but the best among them won't forget the meaning, according to Chaki, of the form's very name: beauty.

Read more about kōlams at Atlas Obscura.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Introduction to the World’s Five Major Religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity & Islam

No matter the strength of particular beliefs, or disbeliefs, religions of every kind are all equally fundamental to the human experience. This was so for thousands of years before the advent of the world’s big five religions, and for thousands of years after. “Religion has been an aspect of culture for as long as it has existed, and there are countless variations of its practice,” says Episcopal priest and anthropologist John Bellaimey in the TED-Ed video above. “Common to all religions is an appeal for meaning beyond the empty vanities and lowly realities of existence.”

Religions particularize a set of archetypal human responses to universal metaphysical questions like “Where do we come from?” and “How do I live a life of meaning?” and “What happens to us after we die?” Such questions find answers outside the boundaries of religious faith. For an increasing number of people, science and secular philosophy offer comforting, even beautiful naturalistic explanations. And millions more feel the pull of intuitions about a higher power or “a source from which we all come and to which we must return.”

Religion gives the big questions faces and names, of divinities, demons, and holy men (in the five big, it has been almost entirely men). Whether these figures existed or not, their legends shape culture and history and are shaped and changed in turn. Bellamy surveys the big five world religions with an overview of their central narratives, illustrated with montages of religious art. The information is at the level of a 101 course introduction, but the number of people in the world who know little to nothing about other religions is likely quite high, given the numbers of people who know so little about their own. We can probably all learn something here we didn’t know before.

Bellamy’s approach broadly suggests that what matters most in religion is story. But to dismiss religions as “just stories” misses the point. Purely at the level of narrative, we can think of religions as creative ways to tell the stories we find untellable. This says nothing about religion’s effects on the world. Is it a force for good or ill? Given its role in every stage of human cultural development, both positive and negative, maybe the question is unanswerable. There are too many varieties of religious experience over too great a span of time to reckon with.

Bellamy’s charitable explanations of the major five religions highlight their contingent nature—he locates each faith in its particular time and place of origin. But he also shows the universalizing tendencies of each tradition, qualities that made them so portable. He does not, however, mention that more inclusive interpretations usually came from revolts against more limited original designs. Religions and cultures evolved together, materially and culturally. As they spread and occupied more territory with wider populations, they grew and adapted.

In his book The Tree of World Religions, Bellamy develops such historical material into an exploration of twenty world religions from Hinduism to Rastafarianism, showing each one as a collective act of storytelling. Compiled from a 25-year high school world religions class Bellamy taught, the book covers the Mayans, the Norse, and Socrates, Laozi, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Buddha. In what Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age,” writes Amazon, these later sages “moved religion from mostly-supernatural to mostly-humanistic, shifting the focus on God’s inscrutable otherness to God’s increasing insistence on ethical behavior as the highest form of worship.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is a Zen Koan? An Animated Introduction to Eastern Philosophical Thought Experiments

If you know anything at all about Zen, you know the famous question about the sound of one hand clapping. While the brain teaser did indeed originate with a Zen master, it does not fully represent the nature of the koan. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, when Chan Buddhism, as Zen was known in China, flourished, koans became widely-used, explains the TED-Ed animated video above, as objects of meditation. “A collection of roughly one thousand, seven hundred bewildering philosophical thought experiments,” koans were ostensibly tools to practice living with the unexplainable mysteries of existence.

The name, notes the lesson, “originally gong-an in Chinese, translates to ‘public record or case.’ But unlike real-world court cases, koans were intentionally incomprehensible.” Koans are “Surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.” The lessons in ambiguity and paradox have their analogue, perhaps, in certain trains of thought in Medieval Catholic philosophy or the idealism of thinkers like George Berkeley, who might have first come up with the one about the tree falling in the forest.

But is the purpose of the koan simply to break the brain’s reliance on reason? It was certainly used this way. Zen Master Eihei Dogen, founder of Japanese Soto Zen traveled to China to study under the Chan Masters, and later criticized this kind of koan practice and other aspects of Chan, though he also collected 300 koans himself and they became integral to Soto tradition. Koans are not just absurdist zingers, they are, as the name says, cases—little stories, often about two monks in some kind of teacher and student relationship. Many of the students and teachers in these stories were patriarchs of Chan.

Like the sayings and doings of other religious patriarchs in other world religions, these “cases” have been collected with copious commentary in books like The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity. They show in snapshots the transmission of the teaching directly from teacher to student, rather than through sacred texts or rituals (hundreds of koans, rules, and rituals notwithstanding). That they are puzzling and ambiguous does not mean they are incomprehensible. Many seem more or less like fables, such as the oft-told story of the monk who carries a beautiful woman across a mud patch, then chastises his younger companion for bringing it up miles down the road.

Other koans are like Greek philosophical dialogues in miniature, such as the story in which two monks argue about the nature of a flag waving in the wind. A third steps in, Socrates-like, with a seemingly “right” answer that transcends both of their positions. The longevity of these vignettes lies in their subtlety—surface meanings only hint at what the stories are up to. Koans force those who take up their study to struggle with uncertainty and irresolution. They also frequently undermine the most common expectation that the teacher knows best.

Often posed as a kind of oblique verbal combat between teacher and student, koans include extremely harsh, even violent teachers, or teachers who seem to admit defeat, tacitly or otherwise, when a student gets the upper hand, or when both confront the speechless awe of not knowing. Attitudes of respect, reverence, humility, candor, and good humor prevail. Perhaps under all koan practice lies the idea of skillful means—the appropriate action to take in the moment, which can only be known in the moment.

In his short, humorous discussion of Zen koans above, Alan Watts tells the story of a Zen student who tricks his master and hits him with his own stick. The master responds with approval of the student’s tactics, but the koan does not suggest that everyone should do the same. That, as Dogen would argue, would be to have an idea about reality, rather than a wholly-engaged response to it. Whatever else koans show their students, they point again and again to this central human dilemma of thinking about living—in the past, present, or future—versus actually experiencing our lives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

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