Sunday, October 31, 2010


“So he is a good vampire? I mean on a scale of one to ten. Ten being someone who's killing and maiming every night, one being someone who's... not.”
--Willow, about the character Angel, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 7

Here on TTV, we concern ourselves mainly with virtues as they apply to the human realm. This covers qualities honored by cultures of the far-flung past, as well as traits that apply more to groups of people than to individuals.

In our quest to understand Virtue, I think we may need to travel to even more distant countries. So, in coming weeks, we will be visiting the Virtues of Animals, of Aliens (including Martians), of Artificial Intelligences, and even of Imaginary Beings (one of which we've already visited).

In keeping with this ambitious agenda, and in honor of my favorite holiday, Halloween (known to the Catholics as All Hallow’s Eve and to the Pagans as Samhain), break out your passports and pack some extra-strength dental floss: We’re setting a course for “Vamp-irony” to explore the Virtues of... Vampires! (We will also continue discussion of the Shadow, begun last post in our visit to Passion--which, come to think of it, makes a nice segue into the subject of Vampires anyway...)

Admit it: You doubt we can learn anything about Virtue from plasma-sucking, razor-toothed Creatures of the Night who, when they think about us at all, mostly throw us in the category of “pets or meat.”1

Of course in the last few years our media have flooded us with stories about Vampires, giving us new insights into the moral diversity within this little-understood minority. Some vampire protagonists have even managed a Restraint on their bloodthirst. And that starts with the letter “R,” which via some Letterman-inspired magic can change some of those blood-sucking Fanged Fiends into... Fanged Friends. Consider Angel, the tortured, noble vamp from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series--so beautiful and good that Buffy found herself taking him instead of staking him. (Thanks, Letterman!)

Or consider undead Civil War soldier Bill Compton, who falls in love with the winsome ingenue Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’ novels, brought to life in the True Blood TV series. (Her name, for you unhappy few who are not yet fans, is pronounced “SUCK-ee.” Savor the irony.) The Kindliness and Courage of Ms. Stackhouse wins Bill’s unbeating heart, leaving him feeling in a mood more willing than killing. (Go, Letterman, go!)

Still, Bill and Angel qualify as self-admitted misfits within the mainstream of their vampire nations. Can the more routinely people-eating hordes of nosferatu tell us something about virtue? Yes! Over their centuries of existence, these immortals have established a cultural order, occasionally transcending their thirst for blood into a thirst for good, or from a state of moral blight into one of moral... light. (Eeargh! Stop me, stop me! Someone, please stop me before I strike again...)

What, you might ask, constitutes a set of admirable qualities for a vampire? Author Robert Place has an answer. Within his Vampire Tarot, in fact, he has described Seven Virtues of the Vampires, along with their constituent root virtues:

  • Cunning, Virtue of the Trickster and the Hero
  • Strength, Virtue of Heroic Self-Discipline
  • Illumination, Virtue of Integration and Magic
  • Prudence, Virtue of Wisdom and Enlightenment
  • Revitalization, Virtue of Health and Longevity
  • Temperance, Virtue of Balance, Health, and Beauty
  • Justice, Virtue of Truth and Rightfulness

Each of these virtues has inspired a votary candle from Coventry Creations. Their light is UV-free and suitable for your creepy dungeon or mouldy crypt. No more inconvenient bouts of solar-triggered spontaneous combustion!

All joking aside (well, almost all): The Vampire can indeed truly shine a light (no pun intended) on the notion of Virtue. Jungian analysts point out that vampire stories appear in virtually all human cultures. We’re familiar with the legends from Europe’s Transylvania, but what about China’s chiang shih; Malaysia’s penanggalan; the chordewa of Bengal, India; or the asiman of Benin, Africa? To the Jungians, this makes the vampire not just a nifty inspiration for monster movies, but an Archetype that can tell us about the anatomy of the human soul. As the pseudonymously-posting Alex Lucard2 explains in an essay on his surprisingly erudite gaming review site:

For Jung himself, the vampire was the representation of a psychological aspect he called, "the shadow." The Shadow is made of aspects of one's self that the conscious mind and ego were unable to recognize. The shadow was primarily negative concepts, such as repressed thoughts and desires, our anti-social impulses, morally questionable judgment, childlike fantasies, and other traits we normally feel shame for expressing or thinking.

Thus, the Vampire holds up to us a mirror in which we see all our shortcomings: Our brutishness, our lust, our isolation. By contemplating on the Vampire, we learn about ourselves. Lucard goes on to explain that the Shadow “became a mental scapegoat of sorts. It allowed humanity to project the negative aspects of ourselves onto something we could both openly revile and admire without actually acting out the desires and impulses ourselves. The vampire acts in the way humanity wishes it could, but cannot due to social restraints.”

For those interested, April Seville gives a nice exploration of the Vampire as Jungian Shadow in her review of the recently release vamp flick Let the Right One In.

Personal growth author Ken Wilber, who has made a lifelong career of studying and teaching techniques like Zen meditation, has in the past 5 years more vocally emphasized the need to also work with the Shadow. He believes meditation alone cannot get a spiritual practitioner to wholeness, and he suggests techniques for facing, and embracing, the Shadow. (The process may not seem as romantic as Bill and Sookie’s first kiss, but it’s no less compelling.)

I find it interesting, speaking of Bill and Sookie, that in Charlaine Harris’ books, human beings can acquire miraculous healing powers and vitality from drinking vampire blood. Vamp blood becomes a sort of illicit drug, and “blood-runners” snare and drain vampires in order to sell the substance on the black market, destroying the creatures in the process. In fact, the night Sookie meets Bill, she saves him from a pair of “drainers”--putting a nice reversal on the “damsel in distress” paradigm. Later, the drainers wreak revenge on Sookie, beating her to the point of certain death; Bill saves her life by letting her drink his blood. (I’ll spare you the graphically violent footage.)

So I wonder: Maybe we, too, can attain miraculous healing not by regarding our Vampire Shadow with revulsion or fascination--but rather by embracing him, and drinking him in.

May we see the gates of Vamp-irony, and perhaps make a home there.

And: Happy Halloween!

1 I thought about a link to the famous “pets or meat” scene from Roger & Me, but I’m a self-admitted squeamish wussy, so you can read about it here instead. It’s on Youtube as well.
2 “A Lucard” is “Dracula” spelled backwards.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

страсть (Passion)

The passion rebuilds the world for the youth. It makes all things alive and significant.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Love,” Essays: First Series (1841)

In St. Petersburg, Russia, 117 years ago today, an audience heard for the first time Piotr Tchaikovsky’s moving Symphony No. 6 in B minor, also known as the Symphonie Pathétique. The Russian title for the symphony, Патетическая (Patetičeskaja), suggests the English word “pathetic,” or "arousing pity”--an interesting interpretation, given the story below-- but in fact what Tchaikovsky intended was the sense of "passionate" or "emotional.” Thus, our associated virtue for this stopover is the all-to-human quality of Passion.

Passion makes an interesting subject for a virtue. At face value, interpreted as an emanation of Love, in turn a face of the root virtue Humanity, its virtuousness seems straightforward. 

But Love has obvious powerful and beneficial aspects, making it in many people’s eyes the ultimate human virtue. (You’ll recall TTV has instead set Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession as the twin heroes for that role. Still, I’d like to think Love might be their magical Fairy Godmother, hovering nearby, fussing over their outfits and smoothing down their cowlicks.)

Passion, unlike Love, tilts more to the powerful side and less wholly to the beneficial. After all, we call some unfortunate acts “crimes of Passion,” never “crimes of Love.” Anyone who has felt the tides of romantic infatuation know all too well how crazy-making Passion can be. In fact, in Buddhist traditions Passion appears not as a virtue but as a klesha, a pitfall on the path of spiritual development. The sutras claim “Three Poisons” interfere with moral attainment: avijjā (ignorance), ūpādānā (attachment), and taṇhā, which is often translated as craving, desire... or passion.

In the Feri tradition, Passion appears as one of the principles on the Iron Pentacle, a constellation of qualities acknowledged as potentially threatening. (Love appears separately, on the Pearl Pentacle.) Feri respects the Dark aspects of the Iron qualities, yet insists that progression along the spiritual path requires encountering “society’s Shadows.” (The rough time many students have with the Iron Pentacle curriculum testifies to its Power. The class has a high drop out rate. Few can stare into the face of the Shadow without blinking.)

So, we find another juicy paradox: one person’s virtue makes another’s vice. For myself, in thinking about Passion, I can see it like the wind. A breeze can cool us on a hot day or delight us by lifting our kite; a stronger one, on the other hand, can blow our house down. (I’m obviously being affected by living on the north side of the Coachella Valley, where the westerlies snake through the San Gorgonio pass and howl all night long.)

Tchaikovsky, whose spirit soared on heights of rapturous music, but also crashed tragically to earth, makes an apt exemplar of Passion. Only recently have Russian scholars acknowledged that Piotr Tchaikovsky was gay, suffering a typically closeted, self-tortured existence in a country where homosexuality was neither legal nor respectable. Tchaikovsky struggled with his “disposition,” as he called it, and even married for a brief (and disastrous) time.

Some might argue that by sublimating his feelings of Love, they transformed into an intense Passion that fueled Tchaikovsky’s music, whose expressiveness is praised to this day. According to historian Rictor Norton, gays fans especially hear in it the “longing and despair of homosexual angst in a homophobic world.” In particular, the Symphonie Pathétique, performed in public just days before Tchaikovsky’s mysterious death, evokes this sense of powerful hidden emotions:

There is a similar argument about the truth behind Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony, the Pathétique, which some find profoundly enigmatic and some find profoundly self-revealing: a longing to reveal something, a sense of tragic destiny, a struggle for happiness defeated by implacable ‘fate’, i.e. oppression, a union of defiance and despair with which many gay men have identified at least until the 1970s.

And so we arrive at Passion’s Shadow. In his fascinating essay, Norton explains that Tchaikovsky’s rapid decline and death nine days after the performance of Symphony No. 6 was blamed on cholera, supposedly contracted during a very public and deliberate drinking of a glass of unboiled water. (Medically, I find this fishy: The known incubation period for cholera is longer than the time between the drinking and the death.) Scholars now believe Tchaikovsky drank a fatal dose of arsenic in an honor suicide, pressed upon him by colleagues upset at Tchaikovsky’s indiscretions with an aristocrat’s nephew. Keeping his Love partly in the Shadows, the crucible transformed the Love into Passion, fueling triumphant music, a tortured life, a tragic death. (See our vistation to the Jewish virtue of Aymah for further explorations on this theme.)

But to dwell on these Dark aspects of Tchaikovsky’s life and music would be wrong, for he left us a legacy of sumptuous, transcendent music that, if not immortal, will surely let his brilliance shine for centuries to come. And that, my friends, is the Light of Passion. So, when you have a few minutes, think on his story, listen to his Passion, sit with him for a moment in it, and move forward from the light of Passion, to the light of Compassion..

May we see the gates of Passion, and perhaps make a home there.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The Dreamings made our Law.. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming...These songs are sacred.
--Yanyuwa elder Mussolini Harvey, quoted in John Bradley’s Yanyuwa Country, 1988

Twenty-five years ago today, the Australian government returned to local Aborigines control over Uluru, more commonly known to us as Ayer’s Rock. This sandstone monolith, almost 6 miles around, rises over 1,000 feet over the central Australian outback. Once they received recognition of their land rights, the Pitjantjatjara tribe agreed to lease the site for 99 years back to the Australian park service. While the park continues to allow tourists to climb the rock, the native folk have asked tourists to refrain from climbing Uluru, out of respect for its sacredness as laid out in their lore. The story of Uluru made me want to pause today and consider the virtue aspects of Altjeringa (the Dreaming).  

First, remember that Westerners use the term “Aborigine” to refer to an entire continent of people. Just as Native Americans across North America represented hundreds of distinct languages, histories, and belief systems, so too do the natives of Australia contain a huge diversity of cultures.

Even so, we find the notion of Altjeringa across almost all Aboriginal cultures, though the specific term “Altjeringa” comes only from the Arrernte tribe of central Australia. The people who live around Uluru actually use the term Tjurkurrpa; tribes from elsewhere in the continent call the Dreaming by names such as Palaneri, Bugari, Wongar, or Ungud.

What is the Dreaming? After spending hours reading on this question, I conclude we have no easy complete English translation. I’d suggest “Eternal Spritual Power and Order, Spoken through Nature” as a rough beginning. For native Australians, the Dreaming refers in part to the Dreamtime, a “time outside of time” and spiritual plane from which rose the Ancestor Spirits who created the land, animals, and people in it. “The Dreaming” refers to the spiritual power in a place tracing back to the order of Creation. It also means the spiritual beliefs and practices of the people who live in the place.

Aborigines hold that the specific spirituality or “Dreaming” of a person comes from tapping into the power of a place, which expresses itself in local laws or customs guided by sacred ceremonies, song, and art. Individual persons living in a place have distinct Dreamings which they treat as intellectual property; an artist with a Honey Ant dreaming, for instance, must give permission for someone else to paint images related to that Dreaming. Certain sacred chants embed knowledge about specific places within them; the natives call the paths through the land (or sky) described in such music “Songlines.” (Recall most tribes kept a nomadic way of life until the arrival of the Europeans.) You can see an example of a Blue Wren Dreaming here:

Altjeringa constitutes a virtue inasmuch as native Australians uphold the Dreaming as the source of their ways of life--their Law. As such, we can see that Altjeringa represents Divine Order. As one commentator explained,

The Dreaming is met when people live according to law, and live the lore: perpetuating initiations and Dreaming transmissions or lineages, singing the songs, dancing the dances, telling the stories, painting the Songlines and Dreamings.

To me, Altjeringa recalls the Confucian virtue of Li, a word similarly hard to translate into English but that includes ideas like “customs,” “ritual,” and “proper behavior,” and refers to everything from songs and costumes, to food, to architecture, to expression of emotions and relations between blood relatives and strangers. Sometimes translators just shrug and call it “culture.”

Unlike other virtues, which have an invariable quality, the Order in Altjeringa will manifest differently from place to place and even from individual to individual. (As a member of the eclectic Reclaiming community I resonate with this!)   

Altjeringa brings to mind two other virtues we’ve visited recently. One is the Shinto virtue of Musubi, the Blooming or unfolding of a person or event harkening back to primal Divine powers of creation. Another is yesterday’s stopover, Abiding, which I found in a reverie on the Chartres cathedral and the Timelessness of the creative act, in which we shed our ego and touch the Divine--which may be simply another name for the Dreamtime.

Indigenous Australians believe that only an extraordinary state of consciousness allows one to attune to the Dreaming. For us, I think it serves as a reminder to take time for Listening to the world around us, and the sacredness of Nature, who today seems all-too-beleagered. As someone who has had my feet knocked out from under me in the past year, the Order and Beauty of the Dreamtime calling out to us through Nature holds appeal. It reminds me of the Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --/over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.”

Take a moment today to sit quietly in a natural setting that has meaning for you, whether that’s a favorite park filled with trees and birds, or the abandoned lot next door giving refuge to “weeds”  and insects. Can you tap into the Dreaming of the place? How does it speak to you? How do you honor it?

May we see the gates of Altjeringa, and perhaps make a home there.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Abide with me from morn to eve, / For without Thee I cannot live: / Abide with me when night is nigh. / For without Thee I dare not die.
-- John Keble, 19th century English poet, in his hymn “Sun of My Soul, Thou Saviour Dear”

On this date, 750 years ago, King Louis IX of France presided over the dedication of the magnificent Gothic cathedral at Chartres, famed for its splendor and magnificent stained glass. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres has captured the hearts of pilgrims and artists for the better part of a millenium. As with most medieval cathedrals, Chartres’ construction evolved over generations, leaving the identities of most of its architects and builders lost to the mists of time--a mystery all the more compelling for its beauty. For this reason, I will use this occasion to celebrate the virtue of Abiding.

The word “abide” has a plethora of meanings: To persist. To survive. To obey. To make a temporary home. To await--or simply, to wait. Thus, a taste of Abiding brings us a bouquet of flavors from such virtues as Patience, Endurance, Dedication, the Selflessness of submission, and just the merest hint of Eternity. What this all has to do with Chartres, I’ll explain below.

Chartres attracted pilgrims regularly for almost four hundred years before its dedication, due to a relic stationed at the church in 876 C.E. by the Holy Roman Emperor: The Sancta Camisia, a cloak supposedly worn by the Virgin Mary. By getting close to the old garment, visitors felt closer to the Mother of God. At least four previous church buildings had burned down before the modern cathedral began work, shortly after the last fire of 1194 C.E.

Intriguingly, the names of the builders of the magnificent structure remain unknown to modern-day scholars, who refer to the presumed main architect by the nickname “Scarlet.” Particular design details allow experts to discern the presence of at least two other designers, labelled “Bronze” and “Olive.” At any given time, each master builder directed nine teams of workers. They achieved the bulk of the building in a scant 30 years.

While I’ve studied its design in school, I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Chartres in person, but it has a well-known awesome effect on visitors. One of them posted a casual view from inside the transcept, looking up at its lofty ceilings:

Modern-day artists and writers frequently comment about the striking contrast between the Majesty of its historic design, and the utter Namelessness of Chartres’ legions of designers and workers. Filmmaker Orson Welles, for instance, inspired by Chartres, made this comment:

Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life ... we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing.

And this, my fellow travelers, brings us to the message of Chartres. Welles walked right up to the edge of it, got close to the old garment, but did not quite take the leap of Faith it required. For it is not in its glass and stone that the Abiding of Chartres (ahem) abides. Chartres stands forth as a mortal commentary on Creativity and Appreciation-of-Beauty, emanations of the root virtues of Wisdom and Transcendence. Its workers submitted themselves to the creative act, certainly knowing that their dazzling edifice would make but a paltry echo of the heaven into which they hoped one day to enter. They subsumed themselves in the creative act. They abided the egolessness of Creativity.

We, too, know the magic of Chartre’s nameless makers. If you have ever simply picked up a crayon and colored a picture, or even watched a child do so, then you have known the Rapture and Surrender of the creative act. In the moment of creation, we shed the ego like the skin of  a snake, and join something greater. The refrain you can almost hear the builders of Chartres sing out to us through the dusty decades: Why scale the unforgiving vertical cliffs of materiality, when you can soar through the skies of Eternity? It is in their selfless Surrender to the creative fire that they, and we, transcend. The gorgeous cathedral they left us, is like the eggshell left behind by the hatching of an eagle. It is like a dusty cloak left behind by the Mother of Divinity.

Through many centuries, while its gifted makers surrendered to the timeless depths, Chartres abides. And they abide in Chartres. It abides its time. And it abides us.  

May we see the gates of Abiding, and perhaps make a home there.