Desperately Seeking Sasquatch 60

By Jul 7, 2014 Edited Jul 31, 2014 1 2 76 16

Bigfoot Crossing

The creature known as “Bigfoot” is said to inhabit mountains in the Pacific Northwest, swamps in Florida, forests in northern Minnesota, and many other areas of the country.  But the large hairy humanoid creature that walks on two legs is not exclusively American.

Canadians claim a “Sasquatch” roams their lands. In Russia  a “yeti” menaces animals and humans so frequently the Russian government has funded expeditions to find it. In the 1950’s explorer Eric Shipton received worldwide attention when he photographed footprints of the “Abominable Snowman” on Mount Everest. ” In Australia there are legends of a “Yowie.” In South America a Mapinguari lurks in jungles. In Malaysia the orang minyak (“oily man” monster) preys on animals and imaginations.


So what’s up with all this? Are these ape like creatures merely part of the collective unconscious of the human race? Or are they actual living beings roaming the shadows of the world? Are they apes? Human? A hybrid species created centuries ago in a murky, mysterious genetic quagmire best left unmentioned?

Perhaps, yet the unmentionable was mentioned last year, when a Texas veterinarian named Melba Ketchum published a study he said proved not only that Bigfoot is real, but that he is part human. Related to us, like the crazy uncle we don’t invite to parties. Or the mad aunt we lock in the cellar when company comes.

Ketchum’s report received national attention, and not just from Bigfoot partisans like The Bigfoot Research Organization (BFRO), and cable TV shows like Animal Planet’sFinding Bigfoot, a show featuring an intrepid (albeit suspect) quartet traveling across America (and sometimes around the world) looking for Bigfoot. In fact the show could be called Not Finding Bigfoot because in the three year life of the show they have not gotten even a glimpse of the big fella. Is it odd that a seven foot creature with very big feet can be so elusive?


But back to Dr. Ketchum’s study. After examining samples of hair, skin, excrement, and fluid collected by people across America, Dr. Ketchum concluded:

“We have extracted, analyzed and sequenced DNA from over one hundred separate samples… obtained from scores of collection sites throughout North America…DNA analysis showed two distinctly different types of results. The mitochondrial DNA was unambiguously human, while the nuclear DNA was shown to harbor novel structure and sequence … the data conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendent of modern humans.”

bigfoot's love child

In other words, Dr. Ketchum believes that thousands of years ago cryptid creatures mated with human females. The result is our alleged relative, Bigfoot – or Sasquatch – or Yowie – or yeti – or…well you get the point.

Ketchum’s study (available on his website for $30) was criticized by the scientific community for its poorly controlled sample gathering. While Ketchum was careful to avoid contaminating the samples in the laboratory, most of his samples seem to have been contaminated by human contact before reaching him. For instance, Bigfoot enthusiasts who find a hair on a tree or a fence post could easily add their own DNA to the sample by their own skin secretion, or from passing it around to family and friends.

The other problem with Ketchum’s study is that the people collecting the samples didn’t know what animal they were from. They just came across something they thought was weird and speculated it might be from Bigfoot. The whole endeavor was flawed, at least in the opinion of the scientific community, who turned their collective noses up at Ketchum, his study, and the crowd he hung out with, who were derided as “monster hunters” and “cryptozoologists.” The scorn was returned by the Bigfoot believers, who used a more predictable vocabulary.

take that scientists

An olive branch of sorts was extended last year when Oxford University announced they would test any supposed Sasquatch samples that were sent them. Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes announced: “I’m challenging and inviting the cryptozoologists to come up with the evidence instead of complaining that science is rejecting what they have to say.”

The floodgates opened. Samples came in from all over the world. Thirty were selected to be subjected to DNA analysis (half of the 30 samples came from America). The results? Drum roll please…the American and Russian samples were matched to a variety of animals: black bears, cows, horse, raccoon, sheep, deer, and canine animals. The most intriguing samples were from the Himalayas.

Two hair samples alleged to be from the Abominable Snowman were genetically matched to a forty thousand year old jawbone from a Norwegian arctic polar bear. Perhaps in his upcoming book, “The Yeti Enigma,” Sykes will explain how parts of a Norwegian polar bear ended up in the Himalayan mountains.

Sykes’ results were published in June 2014 in the weekly edition of Proceedings of the Royal Academy B. It was a perfect opportunity for science to gloat over the monster hunters. But Sykes passed on it. “I don’t think this finishes the Bigfoot myth at all,” he told NBC News. “What it does do is show that there is a way for Bigfoot enthusiasts to go back out into the forest and get the real thing.”


Professor Sykes has certainly warmed to his task. He is planning to explore the Himalayas himself next year to look for monsters. “That’s the next logical step,” he said. “We need a live ‘Yeti.'” (Doesn’t it sound more scientific coming from an Oxford professor?).

Sykes has also become an ambassador between the scientific community and the Bigfoot crowd, conceding that the monster hunters “have been quite badly treated by scientists over the past 50 years.” For his research and kind words, Sykes was named Cryptozoologist of the Year as well as Bigfooter of the Year for 2013. Isn’t it nice when we all get along? Now if only the Bigfoot/Yeti/Sasquatch would cooperate and let us find him, imagine the fun we all will have.


A Bigfoot Christmas Carol


Wrestling’s First Diva: The Fabulous Moolah 76

By Jun 28, 2014 Edited Jun 20, 2015 1 5 388 109


Any fan of today’s professional wrestling knows who divas are. They are young, beautiful, athletic women with a flair for the dramatic. Divas are well compensated for their talents. Some are even millionaires. They all owe their livelihood to the first diva of professional wrestling: Mary Lillian Ellison, better known as the “Fabulous Moolah.”

Ellison was the last child and only daughter born to a rural family who lived outside of Columbia, South Carolina. Growing up with twelve brothers made it perhaps inevitable Ellison would become a wrestler; she probably needed some wrestling holds to get food at the supper table.

Mildred Burke, champion

Although her first name was Mary, she went by Lillian. Her dad took her to a wrestling match in Columbia when Lillian was ten. The lady’s champion, Mildred Burke, was on the card. Later Ellison credited Burke as being her inspiration to become a professional wrestler.

Professional wrestling is a unique career. Being a female wrestler in the 1950’s was very unique, and not respectable. Although female wrestling was banned in New York state when Ellison broke into the business, professional wrestling in America was starting to reach a wider audience than the carnivals and traveling circus shows it began in. The business evolved into a form of athletic entertainment that looked spontaneous but had a predetermined outcome. The wrestlers used their athleticism and entertainment skills to “work the marks,” that is, to fool the audience into believing everything was real. Fostering the illusion that wrestling is unscripted is called “keeping kayfabe.” Much wrestling jargon even today is a holdover from the carny days of the early twentieth century.

Lillian Ellison’s wrestling world was ruled by regional promoters who could make or break a wrestler’s career. The promoters were not regulated by any governing bodies, and could be either fair or unscrupulous. Most of them wanted to make as big a profit as they could. So did the wrestlers.

The love-hate relationship between wrestlers and promoters had interesting outcomes. When Lillian Ellison was a rookie wrestler in the early 1950’s, a promoter named Jack Pfeffer told her she would have to change her name: Lillian Ellison wasn’t “flashy” enough. He challenged her: Why do you want to wrestle? She snapped back, “For the money. I want to wrestle for the moolah.” This conversation resulted in Ellison creating her career name: the Fabulous Moolah.

valet to buddy rogers

Her first break was as a valet for soon to be heavyweight champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Ellison wore a leopard skin wrestling outfit and billed herself as Slave Girl Moolah. Her character was a foil for Rogers, who was a heel.

(The “heel” is the bad guy, the wrestler who behaves in ways to make fans boo. The babyface, or “face”, behaves in ways that make fans cheer. The usual scenario has the face demonstrating his superior wrestling skills to start the match. This frustrates the unscrupulous heel, who resorts to fouling to gain the advantage. The rest of the match is a see saw battle between good and evil. The outcome appears in doubt, but is predetermined).

Moolah the champ

Ellison moved into singles wrestling and won her first title belt in 1956 as the “Fabulous Moolah.” She stood five feet four inches and weighed about 115 pounds. She was not beautiful and did not have an intimidating physique. Her strength was a brutal offense that included punches, kicks and flying drop kicks. Flying what? In a radio interview Ellison explained:

“A flying drop kick is when you jump flat-footed from the floor up as high as the person you’re looking at and kick them in the face or in the chest…the flying head scissors is where you jump up, put both legs around their head and throw them forward as you come down. And a flying mare is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard you can. I love doing that.”

Moolah's offense

Moolah was always a heel. Heels usually control a wrestling match by directing the action, and using timing and showmanship to “get heat”, that is, to elicit the most negative responses from the audience. The more hated Moolah was, the more people would pay money to see someone beat her up. It was all part of doing business. “I loved when they got mad at me,” Moolah declared. ”They called me all kinds of names. I said: ‘Call me anything you want. You don’t write my check.’”

For the next several decades Moolah was champion more often than not. In the 1980’s wrestling changed from numerous independent regional promoters to one large wrestling organization, the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) run by Vince McMahon. Moolah hitched her wagon to McMahon’s ambitious endeavor and never looked back.

moolah the champ

Moolah’s most notable feud was in the 1980’s with WWF ladies champion Wendy Richter, and Richter’s friend, singer Cindy Lauper.  In an incredibly hyped (even for wrestling) story line the cathartic event was a match between Moolah and Richter at Wrestlemania which brought in mucho ka-ching for all involved. Moolah “lost” and laughed all the way to the bank.

Often the line between reality and wrestling storylines gets blurred. Behind the scenes there was heat between Moolah and Richter. Moolah trained Richter, but Richter claimed Moolah financially exploited her and other women who went through Moolah’s school.

moolah v wendy richter

Richter (and others) alleged Moolah forced the trainees to sign contracts giving Moolah a percentage of their winnings for every match they had and ever would have.

It got worse. Some women alleged that Moolah acted as a pimp with some of her female wrestlers, setting them up to be sexually exploited by regional promoters during the 1960’s. So in addition to the “scripted heat,” there was real bad blood between Moolah and Richter. Moolah avenged her loss to Richter by donning a mask and winning back the title from Richter thanks to a fast count by the referee, who was in on the fix. Shortly afterwards Richter left the business for good.

Moolah never really left wrestling. She continued to train wrestlers and act as a promoter from time to time. She wrestled into her seventies. Ellison was married and divorced five times, and ended up moving back to Columbia. In 2004 a documentary called “Lipstick & Dynamite aired. It recounted the history of female professional wrestling, and Moolah was featured.

2014 Divas from the WWE

In 2007, at age 84, the Fabulous Moolah died of a heart attack. She was buried in a family plot near her home in Columbia, South Carolina. Ellison was as controversial in her private life as she was in her wrestling career. But like her or not, she paved the way for today’s wrestling divas. And that is no mean feat.







Lillian Ellison, with Larry Platt, “The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle” (Regan Books, 2002). The Fabulous Moolah. WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is the former WWF (World Wrestling Federation). WWF was sued by another WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, for rights to the initials, and won. Vince McMahon used the name change as an opportunity to bury “kayfabe” forever. The Fabulous Moolah is Dead. Wrestlings Legendary Shoots: Moolah v. Richter.

New York Times Obituary, Lillian Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah.

National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program in 2005.


Life In A Black Hole 68

By Jun 17, 2014 Edited Jan 25, 2016 5 2 172 57

Black hole

If you think life on earth is strange, you are right. But life – and death – are even stranger in outer space. What happens when a star dies? Does a cosmic priest perform last rites, sprinkling star dust on the feverish forehead of the doomed star? Not exactly. If the dead star is big enough it turns into a most intriguing phenomenon: a black hole.

These things are flat out strange. Scientists believe they are created when very large stars flame out. But believing black holes exist is not the same as understanding how they work. They are so baffling even astrophysicist Andrea Ghez concedes: “We don’t know! We’d like to know, but we don’t actually know.” Others, like astronomer Andrew Hamilton, can sound downright unscientific: “It’s this monstrous, mysterious thing that, I don’t know, eats everything.”


But even though a black hole has never been seen, and scientific consensus on its existence is just a theory, let’s run with it and see where we end up.

We’ll start with stars. Our Sun is a star. We think our Sun is huge and, relatively speaking, it is. One million earths could fit inside the Sun. For us that is plenty big. But our Sun is one of the smaller, newer stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It is only 4.5 billion years old.  There are more than one hundred billion other stars living and dying in the universe. Some we see, most we do not.

Our Sun has a magnetic core 27 million degrees hot.  Although quite small, the core contains most of the Sun’s total mass. The Sun’s gravitational core makes the planets of our solar system orbit around it. It takes Earth a year to orbit the Sun. The Sun is also on an orbit, a much longer orbit – it lasts about 250 million years. What does our Sun orbit around? The magnetic core of the Milky Way galaxy: an incredibly large and powerful black hole. More about that soon.                                                       Â

Deep space

When a star burns, the heat in the star pushes out and balances the internal pull of gravity. In about 5 billion years – give or take a few million – our Sun will burn through the last of its hydrogen fuel. The outer layers will dissolve or float away. It will begin to die.When the Sun’s fuel is finally spent there will be no outward movement to counteract the pull of gravity. The star will collapse in on itself and downsize to a ball of intensely compacted matter about the size of the Earth. Our Sun will become a ‘white dwarf,’ an ember glowing from leftover heat; when the heat is gone the Sun will be a black dwarf star.

Because the Sun is a smaller star it cannot compress its matter enough to form a black hole. It takes the death of a star with (at least) three times the mass of our Sun to create one. The majority of stars are much bigger than the Sun. Some stars are twenty times (or more) larger. The death of a huge star is noticed by the entire universe.

The outer layers of a huge star do not simply dissolve or fall away like our Sun. The outer layers of a large star fall inward but then bounce off the core with a shock wave effect. This creates a supernova explosion of incomprehensible force, causing a flash of light seen throughout the universe. National Geographic explains:

“Detonate a Hiroshima-like bomb every millisecond for the entire life of the universe and you will still fall short of the energy released in the final moments of a giant star collapse.”

Collapse is the key word. After the supernova explosion of the outer layer, the body of the star collapses inward with unstoppable, ferocious momentum that creates temperatures of 100 billion degrees. Everything within the gravitational pull is immediately crushed to microscopic size.

We’re talking violence on a monstrous, unbelievable scale. Shards of iron the size of mountain ranges are instantly pulverized into grains of sand, which are pulverized into atoms and neutrons, which are in turn pulverized into smaller and smaller particles. If Earth collapsed into a black monster its diameter would be about two thirds of an inch, but its weight would be unchanged.

Milky Way galaxy black hole

Quantum physics and Einstein’s relativity theory cannot tell us when the process of pulverization ends, or what stops it. And it is all invisible because not even light can escape voracious gravity. Hence the name: black hole. There is nothing to see: no color, no light, just a whole lot of nothing. It is the tombstone of a giant star.

Some scientists theorize the pulverizing ends at a very small point at the center of the black hole called a “singularity.” A singularity, in theory, is an exceedingly small, incredibly massive speck of amazing gravitational strength. Stanford astrophysicist Roger Blandford explains: “Right at the heart of is the center nugget, which we call the singularity, and there we don’t know what goes on.”

Scientists theorize about another part of this mystery called the ‘event horizon.’ This is the outer limit of the singularity’s gravitational pull. Anything passing the event horizon will be subject to the intense gravitational strength of the black hole. Or as physicist and author David Brin says: “If you stick your finger down in there, you ain’t getting it back.” Or anything else, because your body would follow your finger. If you were pulled into the wrong side of the event horizon feet first, the gravitational pull would be so much stronger on your feet than your head that your entire body would be torn apart. Physicists have a lovely scientific word for this experience: “spaghettification.”

Contrary to popular culture depictions, a black hole is not like a giant vacuum cleaner gobbling up stars and galaxies. Its power is more passive. It has the pulling power of a star its size, but the real mayhem occurs in the grip on the inside of the event horizon.

It is suspected that a gigantic black hole is at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Scientists call it SgrA* (Sagittarius A-star) because it can be ‘seen’ in the constellation Sagittarius. Being seen for a black hole consists of observing the stars or planets that orbit around it.

SgrA* is 26,000 light years away. Its estimated mass is 4 million times the mass of the Sun. That is big. Yet our monster of the Milky Way is totally punked by its cousin in the Andromeda galaxy the size of 100 million suns. How did it get that big? Overeating.

Star eater

Right now SgrA* is pulling a gas cloud towards it at 1800 miles per second. Sometime later this year the cloud of gas will approach the event horizon of SgrA*m, which will trigger scrutiny from scientists all over the world. It is hoped we will be able to measure the event horizon by seeing a line of debris from the gas cloud disappearing forever into the hungry mouth of SgrA*. Stay tuned! By the end of this year we may have conclusive proof black holes really exist.





The Legend of Tiananmen Square 60

By May 31, 2014 Edited Oct 26, 2015 2 2 72 12


June 4 2014 is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event that in 1989 put a brutal end to the pro-democracy movement in Communist China.

It was not the last act of violence to occur in the great plaza. On January 23 2001 five individuals immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square in protest over the government’s suppression of Falun Gong, a sectarian Buddhist group. And on October 28 2013 a terrorist suicide car exploded in Tiananmen Square, killing five people and injuring thirty-eight. The Turkestan Islamic movement claimed responsibility for the act. It is remarkable that violence seems to be attracted to a location that, according to legend, is called “Heavenly Peace.”

Tiananmen Gate

There is a great stone gate at the northern end of the massive public square that separates it from the Imperial Forbidden City to the north. The gate is called “Tiananmen”, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” It was built in Beijing (also called Peking) China in 1651. The large public square next to the gate adopted the gate’s name. Over centuries the square grew in size, becoming for a time the largest public square in the world, capable of holding over 500,000 people.

The size of Tiananmen Square is proportional to the city it resides in. With its 21 million inhabitants, Beijing (“Northern Capital”) has been the political and cultural capital of China for the last eight centuries. Over the years an impressive collection of parks, gardens, temples, palaces, national monuments, memorials, art museums, and universities have developed which showcase the best in Chinese culture, art, and education. Encyclopædia Britannica says of Beijing that “few cities in the world have served for so long as the political headquarters and cultural centre of an area as immense as China.”

The twentieth century saw the end of dynastic rule in China. Tiananmen Square became a laboratory for the new powers in China. The first experiment was the May Fourth Movement in 1919. The Square became a political rallying point for students dissatisfied with how China was treated in the Treaty of Versailles. The Chinese expected their cooperation with the Allied Powers would award them the Shandong peninsula. Instead, the European powers granted Shandong to the Japanese and the Chinese government meekly went along.

Tiananmen Square

Thousands of nationalistic Chinese students rallied to Tiananmen Square to protest the failure of the Chinese government to protect Chinese interests. The protest included burning down the house of a politician thought to be a Japanese spy, and beating his servants. In turn the government arrested numbers of Chinese students and beat them, which solved nothing. The protest spread beyond Beijing to Shanghai, where workers and merchants went on strike. The strike expanded, with devastating consequences for China’s economy.

The press was used to pass the torch of Chinese nationalism. Realizing the people would not tolerate inaction, the government released the arrested students and forced the resignations of Chinese officials accused of favoring Japanese interests. Chinese representatives refused to sign the Versailles treaty. This did not prevent the passing of Shandong to the Japanese, but it proved the power of organized students, workers, and other social classes in China to successfully rock the boat.

The protests of 1919 put an end to Confucian ethics as it applied to politics and culture. China was proclaimed a republic but in fact rival warlords controlled the levers of power. In 1937 Japan assumed control of Beijing and maintained power until it lost to US forces in 1945. Then the forces of Chinese nationalism and communism squared off, with communism winning control of Beijing, forcing the nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek) to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Tiananmen Square was used to proclaim The People’s Republic of China by its new leader, Mao Zedong, also known as Mao Tse-tung, or simply Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao

Mao was influenced by the nationalism and anti-imperialism of the May 4 Movement, but was primarily a convert to Leninist Marxism. He appeared at Tiananmen Square in 1949 to proclaim a new China. By the time Mao died in 1976, his brand of Communism (known as Maoism) left its imprint on China to the tune of 70 million dead, including over one million Tibetans. According to his personal doctor, Mao went twenty-five years without taking a bath, chain smoked cigarettes, drank heavily, and never brushed his teeth. He had ten children with four wives, and entertained an untold number of mistresses.

When not indulging his vices, Mao embarked on a cultural revolution that tried to obliterate Chinese culture and art as it had existed for all the centuries prior to Mao coming to power. A huge, beautiful mausoleum was built on Tiananmen Square to commemorate Mao’s rule. Construction of the mausoleum required the Square to be expanded once more, to its final size and rectangular shape. Today the Square can host 600,000 people.

Tiananmen Square hosts annual military displays to commemorate Mao’s 1949 proclamation that China was now The People’s Republic of China, and the military was the People’s Liberation Army. This name was an ongoing source of irony among the Chinese, particularly at another Tiananmen Square event in 1976.

Premier Zhoe Enlai

Premier Zhoe Enlai, a prominent aide to Mao, died of cancer on January 8, 1976. He was a beloved political figure to the Chinese, and an estimated two million mourners left wreaths, flowers, and notes at the Monument to People’s Heroes at Tiananmen Square.

That evening a few thousand were in the square near the Monument. Troops surrounded the mourners, then attacked them with clubs. An estimated four thousand mourners were arrested. According to one report, sixty of the mourners were taken into the Great Hall of the People and beheaded, then cremated the corpses. That such atrocities were committed against ordinary law abiding Chinese citizens by the “People’s Liberation Army” in the “Great Hall of the People” illustrates the peculiar moral insanity communism is capable of.

Beating the mourners

Chairman Mao seemed to allow Zhou Enlai to be discredited after his death, but motive is murky here, for Mao himself was dying. He had three heart attacks on 1976, and the third one, in September, killed him. The Gang of Four tried to take over after Mao’s death, but they were outdone by right wing reformers. It was a bloodless transfer of power; the blood came later, in 1989.

It happened in Tiananmen Square. The people had been enduring a relentlessly poor economy, and an equally relentless corruption in government. General Secretary Hu Yaobang was seen as a reformer, so when he suddenly died of a heart attack on April 15 the mourning was intense, particularly among students. Thousands gathered in the Square. The mourning became a demonstration to protest high inflation and corruption in government, and to call for reform.

The crowds grew. Now there were tens of thousands in the vast open square. Some students began pitching tents under large lampposts containing video cameras. There were hundreds of police in the Square. Some were uniformed, others were plain clothes policemen.


Chinese leaders were not unsympathetic to the complaints of their countrymen. But as crowds grew some leaders became fearful. They began referring to the protesters as “counter-revolutionaries” – the ultimate stigma a communist government can bestow. Other leaders favored a more conciliatory approach. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang visited the Square on May 4 to acknowledge the protesters complaints. The visit of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to China on May 15 accelerated events to the dramatic, and then the tragic.

More protesters

The Square was flooded with people. Western media attention switched from coverage of Gorbachev’s visit to the estimated 1,000,000 Chinese in and around Tiananmen Square. Protesters used the worldwide media attention to announce hunger strikes. The huge crowd was not just students, but workers and people from all classes. Gorbachev left China on May 18. The leadership felt embarrassed and humiliated about the vast protest during Gorbachev’s visit, and the media attention given to the “counter-revolutionaries.” There was no more conciliation. On May 20 the government imposed martial law on Beijing. The protests continued in defiance of martial law.

The stage was set. Workers, students, the unemployed, everyone went to Tiananmen Square, gathering at the legendary “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” the historic site where change in China had happened so many times in the past. The people had pushed events to the brink. In the pre-dawn hours of June 4 the Chinese people received an answer.

The “People’s Army” entered Tiananmen Square and with no warning opened fire on the masses of unarmed protesters. Then tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled onto the Square, crushing anyone in their path. It was a slaughter.

Martial Law

The Chinese government initially claimed that no one was killed. The casualty toll was difficult to calculate because the government closed down the Square, and had helicopters air lifting large bags from the Square. They have continued to refuse to provide details of the Massacre to this day. Western reports range from 500 to 3,000 dead, with many more thousands injured. These of course, are estimates, and may be high just as the government estimates are low.

Clearing the Square

The other complicating factor is that the military suppression extended beyond Tiananmen Square to many other parts of Beijing. Throughout the city there were reports of government violence, and of protesters fighting back and killing or injuring government troops. Thousands were arrested, and of those a number were executed. How many? Perhaps even the government doesn’t know. Blood lust ran its own course: government troops attacked each other and vandalized businesses. Groups of protesters isolated soldiers and beat them to death. Others set military vehicles ablaze. Families of the victims attempted to enter the square and were mowed down by machine gun fire. They faded away, surged back and were murdered again.


It has been twenty-five years since the violence at Tian’ anmen, the legendary Gate of Heavenly Peace. Perhaps one day the legend will coincide with reality. Or perhaps there will always be that unfathomable gap between ideals and reality, between the “People’s Army” and an army that actually protects and defends its people instead of destroying them. Perhaps the allure of peace will continue to draw Chinese to the platform where their ideals may be heard. Or perhaps heavenly peace comes only after enduring the unendurable.

"Heavenly Peace"

SourcesThe Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Copyright © 1994-2008 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia® Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights

Rummel, R. J. China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900Transaction Publishers, 1991. p. 205: In light of recent evidence, Rummel has increased Mao’s democide toll to 77 million;

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. PublicAffairs, 2009. p. 53: “… the Chinese communists’ murdering of a mind-boggling number of people, perhaps between 50 million and 70 million Chinese, and an additional 1.2 million Tibetans.”

 Li, Zhisui (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. London: Random House.

 Gao, Mobo (2008). The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press.

Mother of Goth: Siouxsie Sioux Baillon 67

By May 16, 2014 Edited Jun 21, 2015 2 2 313 79

Siouxsie Sioux

Back in suburban London in the early years, little Susan Ballion gave no indication she would grow up to co-create a subculture called Goth, or front a post punk band named Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees that would have an enduring influence on rock music and fashion.

But events in little Susan’s life led her into dark corners of human behavior, causing her to grow up too wounded and too soon. She couldn’t bring her friends home because her father didn’t work and spent the day drinking in the house. Alcoholism has a way of socially isolating the family containing the alcoholic, and this was true with Susan’s family too. Susan’s brother and sister were ten years older than she was, adding to her isolation. At age nine she was sexually assaulted.

According to Susan, her parents chose to ignore the episode. At age fourteen Susan’s father died from cirrhosis of the liver. Susan felt betrayed and abandoned. Looking back on those painful years, she would say:

“The suburbs inspired intense hatred…I grew up having no faith in adults as responsible people. So I invented my own world, my own reality. It was my own way of defending myself – protecting myself from the outside world. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armour.”

goth princess

In 1976 Susan left high school and began hanging out in clubs. She became enamored of a new punk rock group called the Sex Pistols. The Pistols were good at getting themselves noticed, and Susan was too. She wore black clothes with bondage and fetish accessories. Her spiked hair was dyed black. Once she wore a swastika on a black armband and got beat up. Susan was not being anti-semitic, she was trying to shock the bourgeoisie. She succeeded.

To really make a statement, however, Susan would need to form her own band. But the few people she knew did not know how to make music. At an open mike her friends improvised while Susan recited poems. She named her group Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees. They were immediately linked with the notorious Sex Pistols in the media, but by the late 1970’s English club music had moved to post punk and to goth, and Siouxsie was at the front of both movements.

cat eye makeup

Siouxsie’s band and Joy Division were the first Goth groups. They were loved by critics for their high camp, melodrama, and theatrical style, and hailed as “masters of Gothic gloom.” Siouxsie did not self-title her group “goth”. The label was applied to her for her music and her fashion, particularly her famous cat eye make-up. She had the stage presence and charisma to carry the whole look off. “Goth rock” became a sub-genre of post punk music in England, and spread to Europe and America.

Other bands in the gothic rock stable were The Cure, The Damned, Adam and the Ants, 45 Grave, Play Dead, and Southern Death Cult, to name a few. Siouxsie was a trend setter who followed her own lights. Her on stage presence was remarkable. Critic Jon Savage described Siouxsie as “unlike any female singer before or since, commanding yet aloof, entirely modern.”

In concert

Another female vocalist said:”Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident. It totally blew me away. There she was doing something that I dared to dream but she took it and did it and it wiped the rest of the festival for me, that was it. I can’t even remember everything else about it except that one performance.”

Yoo hoo, Banshees...

People began showing up at Banshees’ concerts in “goth clothing”: all black clothes, bondage and fetish accessories, body piercings, dark red or black lipstick, arrays of Christian crosses, wiccan pentacles, satanic inverted pentacles, and a multitude of other accessories designed to shock and disturb.

The goth subculture of the 1980’s consisted of young intelligent people who didn’t fit in (or felt they didn’t fit in) with normal society. Many of them were absorbed by medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history, and by the writings of Dante, Byron, and Tolstoy. There was a preoccupation with death and blood, and all things Dracula. They tended to appear depressed and gloomy and communicate in tones angsty and morbid.

Siouxsie Garbo

Although the goth subculture was stereotyped immediately, the human diversity within goth subculture resulted in numerous sub-sub cultures, and a seemingly endless varieties of ways to be goth. Siouxsie’s look inspired many to come out as goth in dress and world view. Yet Siouxsie never intended to start a goth subculture, and she ended up becoming exasperated with it. “We’re sick and tired of this one dimensional idea of what we are. I don’t need to say all the d’s and g’s, you know: dark, gloomy, grey.”The Banshees proved a durable group. They made eleven records and toured for twenty years. Every album was critically acclaimed and influential musically – a remarkable consistency. Singles included “Happy House,” “Arabian Nights,” “Spellbound,” “Peek-A-Boo,” “Cities in Dust,” “The Killing Jar,” and “Hong Kong Garden.” The Banshees biggest hit was 1991’s “Kiss Them For Me,” an infectious pop song with cryptic, fascinating lyrics.

Jayne Mansfield

1967 car crash


Kiss Them For Me” was a movie starring 1950’s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, a blonde Playboy pinup who rivaled Marilyn Monroe for sex appeal. Mansfield’s career had peaked by the time she was killed in a gruesome car accident in 1967. Her daughter Mariska was in the car but because of her small size received only minor injuries. Mariska (Hartigay) currently stars in the long running series Law and Order SVU.

Siouxsie’s song was an unlikely ode to Jayne Mansfield’s life and death, referencing her heart shaped swimming pool and using Mansfield’s own word, “divoon” in the lyrics. It was the last major hit the Banshees had. The band announced its retirement in 1996. Artists as diverse as U2, Morrissey, Depeche Mode, Jane’s Addiction, and Sonic Youth all site Siouxsie and the Banshees as major influences to their music.

Today young goth wannabees can go online and check out Siouxsie’s fashion sense back in the day, or as recently as 2013, when Siouxsie appeared at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown concert at The Royal Albert Hall.

Meltdown Concert

It was Siouxsie’s first public performance in seven years, and her first live gig since her divorce from Banshees drummer Budgie (they had been together 20 years). Siouxsie was a little rusty but the adoring fans who rushed the stage to cheer and snap pictures didn’t mind. After a couple of warm up numbers Siouxsie hit her Imperious Diva mode, kicking and thrusting her arms, in total command of herself and the audience.

Yoko Ono and Siouxsie

Towards the end of the crowd pleasing set Siouxsie went down tempo to sing a song about her breakup with Budgie: “What am I gonna do? How do I face the truth? Loveless, loveless…” It was a rare, touching display of vulnerability. On this night Siouxsie got lots of love from fans old and new. Stay tuned: we may not have heard the last from Siouxsie Sioux…


Siouxsie Sioux. (2014). The website. Retrieved 10:25, May 12, 2014, from

Paytress, Mark. Siouxsie & the Banshees: The Authorised Biography. Sanctuary, 2003.

Johns, Brian. Entranced : the Siouxsie and the Banshees story. Omnibus Press, 1989.


Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New York, Roseland, April 28, 1995, by Bill Van Parys.


Profiling Michael Landon 70

By May 10, 2014 Edited Apr 29, 2016 4 7 296 64

Michael Landon

Michael Landon is best known for his acting roles in the television series’ Bonanza,Little House on the Prairie, andHighway to Heaven. His athletic build and rugged, boyish good looks contributed to his popularity. His eventual writing, directing and producing of television shows with a family oriented Christian message led many to believe Landon came from a loving, faith based family. The truth is far different.



Landon was born on Halloween in 1936. He was named Eugene Maurice Orowitz. His father, Eli                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Maurice Orowitz, was a movie theater manager and an actor. Eugene’s mom, Peggy (nee O’Neill), was Irish Catholic, and had a part time career as a dancer and actress. Eli and Peggy argued a lot. Peggy was mentally unbalanced and made several suicide attempts during Eugene’s childhood. Once the family went on vacation and Peggy tried to drown herself. Michael rescued her. Peggy did not thank him or explain herself. She pretended nothing had happened.

In 1941 the Orowitz’s moved from Queens to suburban Collingswood in New Jersey. Four year old Eugene’s new neighbors were all Protestants. His older sister Evelyn remembered:

“The original mayor of the town had written in his will that there would never be any ‘Jews’ or ‘Negroes’ or any other minority living in Collingswood. My father knew about that, but he liked the house and it was convenient for his work so he sent my mother in to talk to the real estate agent. My mother had blonde hair and blue eyes. My father told her to ask almost immediately where the Catholic Church was! They naturally assumed we were Gentile.

“The children constantly called us ‘Christ Killers’ and when I would ride my bike to school they would say ‘kick her off her Jew bike’. I got so bruised that I walked to school for the next year. My brother was only 4 years old when we moved there, but when he started school, he would come home with bruises and my mother asked him what happened. He said, “they called me a lousy Jew”. She said to him, “Oh, no, you’re not a Jew-your father is a Jew-I had you and your sister secretly baptized.” Even though my brother and I were being discriminated against, we were being taught bigotry at home.”

Eugene was a loner in high school. He later said he ate lunch alone and never dated, partly out of shyness but also because parents tended to not let their daughters date non-Protestant (that is, Jewish) boys. He read comic books and took long walks by himself. Lonely, depressed, anxious about his mother’s mental health, Eugene often wet his bed. His mother’s reaction was to hang Eugene’s sheets outside his window, apparently believing she could shame her son into better behavior. Of course this also advertised Eugene’s problem to the neighbors. The teenaged Eugene ran home after school to pull down his stained sheets so his classmates wouldn’t see. Michael Landon made autobiographical reference to this in a 1976 made for TV movie he scripted and directed,The Loneliest Runner.

Eugene and his older sister Evelyn attended Temple Beth Sholom, a conservative synagogue located near Collingswood in an area that only recently allowed Jews to live there. Eugene bicycled to Beth Sholom almost every day to practice reading Hebrew and learn to chant properly.

But when Bar Mitzvah time came, Eugene ran into a problem. While the Jewish Orowitz’s were ostracized by their Protestant neighbors, Jewish rabbis had their own, less obvious ostracism: they did not perform Bar Mitzvahs for children who did not have a Jewish mother. Eugene had spent years learning Hebrew and Jewish chanting in anticipation of his Bar Mitzvah, but now it seemed all his effort would be for naught.

Rabbi Albert Lewis founded Temple Beth Sholom (“House of Peace“). His was a conservative synagogue emphasizing the authority of Jewish scripture. Rabbi Lewis’ heart was not similarly attached. He broke custom and presided over the Bar Mitzvah of Eugene Orowitz. This was a crucial event in Eugene’s life. An adult Michael Landon identified himself as Jewish his entire life.

The one thing Eugene excelled in was throwing the javelin. In 1954 he had the longest toss by a high schooler in the country. He received a sports scholarship from USC around the same time his father decided to move the family to Los Angeles. The Orowitz family seemed at last to be in sync with the outside world.

As head of RKO publicity in New York, Eli Orowitz assumed he would be able to find similar work from his employer in California. Once the family had moved to Los Angeles, however, Eli just couldn’t get his foot in the door. In a 1962 interview with TV Guide Michael Landon said of his father:

“He ended up carrying film cans up five flights of stairs to a projection room in a crummy downtown Los Angeles theater. He had come to the West Coast looking for good fortune, believing that everyone here would remember what he had done for them [back in New York]. The problem was that he couldn’t get anybody at the studios to talk to him.”

Eugene had similar bad luck. He tore ligaments in his shoulder in practice, thus ending his sports career. The Orowitz family sunk into their familiar pattern of depression seasoned with a sense of failure. Eugene worked part time jobs to make ends meet. One of the jobs was at a gas station across the street from Warner Brothers Studio. As the story goes, the young, handsome Eugene filled the gas tank of an executive with the company (before today’s self-service stations, gas attendants would fill the tank, check the oil, and clean the car windows). In return, the executive advised Eugene to enter Warner’s acting school.


.,..and After

Acting school led to bit parts in a series of television shows and movies. The most memorable one was 1957’s “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.” One day Eugene looked through the phone book and picked a name for himself: Michael Landon.

"Little Joe" Cartwright

Landon’s big break came in 1959 when he was cast as “Little Joe” Cartwright in Bonanza,the first television series to be broadcast in color. Bonanzaenjoyed a fourteen year run, with several years as the top rated show on television. The show featured the all male Cartwright clan and their Ponderosa ranch in Nevada, in the time period during and after the American Civil War. The patriarch, Ben Cartwright, was played by Lorne Greene. Greene and Landon developed a father-son relationship based in part on a shared Jewish heritage (Greene’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to Canada).

Landon and Lorne Greene

The timing of their relationship was interesting because Landon’s real father, Eli Orowitz, died of a heart attack in 1959, just as his son’s star began to rise.

Little Joe Cartwright was the show’s heartthrob. Landon leveraged his position to begin writing and directing Bonanza episodes. His creation of a special two hour show, “Forever,” was recognized by TV Guide as one of the best specials ever to appear on television. Bonanza was the second longest running western in television history (Gunsmoke was first). In the last five years Landon’s writing and directing style seemed overbearing to some. He began to develop a work reputation as a “my way or the highway” personality type.

One year after Bonanza was cancelled Landon created a pilot movie for another television series called Little House on the Prairie. Landon wrote, directed, and served as executive producer of the series, which ran for eight years on NBC. The show presented an idealized version of a western family. “The main values of Little House on the Prairie,” Landon said, “are the little things that nobody seems to care about anymore: the simple needs of people and how difficult it was in those days out West to supply them.” Little House was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globe Awards. The popular series ended in 1983.

Charles Ingalls

In 1985 Michael Landon gave an interview in which he talked about his mother, who finally succeeded in committing suicide in 1981. She was not remembered fondly by her son, who said:

“She was a stabber, a kicker and a wacko. She was off her rocker. She was very abusive. My mother would sit on the sofa in her nightgown…holding a Bible, asking God to kill me. My mother was sad-she never got better and she always kept me a little off balance.”

There are thousands of photographs of Michael Landon, but no pictures of his family, or of him as a small boy or baby. Yet Michael Landon’s parents did pass on positive traits to their son: he inherited their love of entertainment and their acting talents. Perhaps it was his own miserable childhood that drove Landon to develop a specific vision of an idealized family life and to singlehandedly make that vision a reality with Little House. Michael Landon’s personal life, however, was quite unlike Charles Ingalls.

Writer and producer of Little House on the Prairie

He was married three times, divorced twice, and had nine children (three were adopted). His first marriage lasted from 1956 to 1962, when Landon filed for divorce. His second marriage was from 1963 to 1982, and included four children. Landon’s third marriage was to Cindy Clerico, a makeup artist on Little House. Landon reportedly had an affair with her and divorced his second wife to marry Cindy in 1983. They went on to have two children.

After marrying Cindy, Landon wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Highway to Heaven. With a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life, Landon played Jonathan Smith, a “probationary” angel trying to earn his wings by helping people.  In 1984 a reviewer inThe Christian Science Monitor wrote:

Highway to Heaven is all the things its critics will say it is: simplistic, saccharine, gushy, sentimental, ingenuous, unsophisticated. But it is also unique in contemporary television. It is a warm and loving and compassionate show for the whole family.”

Highway to Heaven

The show was successful for several years, and ended in 1989.

Michael Landon’s contribution to television was significant. For three decades he produced family oriented shows for American audiences. Although nominated for numerous awards, he never won an Emmy. He was loyal to the people he worked with, often bringing them along to the next new series. Merlin Olson, an actor on Little House,became the star of a Landon spin off show called Father Murphy. In return, his co-workers invariably described him as affectionate, friendly, a man who found humor everywhere, and an immense practical joker.

Cancer diagnosis

In April 1991 Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then doctors discovered his liver was also cancerous. These forms of cancer are often caused by excessive use of alcohol and smoking. Landon drank heavily and was a chain smoker. His friend Bill Kiley recalled, “We used to bet his socks smelled smoky because he inhaled so deeply.”

Earlier in his career Landon became dependent on tranquilizers, but was able to quit. The cigarettes and alcohol were tougher to give up, and ended up being the cause of Michael Landon’s death at the age of fifty four. He spent his final days at his home in Malibu, surrounded by family. On July 1 he spent his last minutes of life alone with his wife Cindy. Today Michael Landon rests in a Los Angeles Jewish cemetery near the gravesite of his father figure, Lorne Greene.


Michael Landon, Eugene Maurice Orowitz, requiescat in pacem.



Philadelphia Daily News (PA) – July 2, 1991, Obituary of Michael Landon.

Grave Michael Landon.

1987 Redbook interview with Michael Landon by Toni Reinhold.

New York Times obituary for Michael Landon, July 2, 1991.

TV Guide, “Michael Landon’s Final Days” (July 20, 1991, p. 3)

Landon Wilson, Cheryl (1992). I Promised My Dad: An Intimate Portrait of Michael Landon by His Eldest Daughter. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Myths of the Flood 78

By Apr 28, 2014 5 10 224 56



noah facing the flood

The movie Noah has revived interest in the biblical account of the Great Flood thousands of years ago. Yet virtually every civilization has a flood story of its own. The Hebrew story is one of many accounts of a great flood. Some other accounts will follow. I will be using the word “myth” to describe these stories. By “myth” I mean stories shared by a group of people as part of their cultural identity. Myth in this context does not necessarily mean true or false, and it is absolutely not used in a judgmental sense to discount any civilizations account of what is universally described as a harrowing experience.

The Islamic Koran recounts a version of a great flood similar to the Hebrew version:

flood water

Allah sent Noah to warn the people to serve none but Allah, but most of them would not listen. They challenged Noah to make good his threats and mocked him when, under Allah’s inspiration, he built a ship. Allah told Noah not to speak to Him on behalf of wrongdoers; they would be drowned. In time, water gushed from underground and fell from the sky. Noah loaded onto his ship pairs of all kinds, his household, and those few who believed… The ship sailed amid great waves. Allah commanded the earth to swallow the water and the sky to clear, and the ship came to rest on Al-Judi… Allah told Noah to go with blessings on him and on some nations that will arise from those with him. (Koran 11:25-48)

The theme of mankind’s wrongdoing being punished by the gods also appears in the Greco Roman version of the flood where, weary of the sins of men, Jupiter and Neptune conspire to wash humanity away by flooding the earth. The creator of mankind, Prometheus, warns the human Deucalion of the plot. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha sail a boat to the top of Mt. Parnassus, the only spot of the world above water. There they throw stones behind their backs. The stones become people and the earth is repopulated.

The Lakota Sioux of North America tell of a time where “people didn’t know how to behave or how to act human, and the creating power was displeased.” The god sang songs to bring forth rain and “the earth split open, and water flowed from the cracks and covered everything.”  The god floated on the water on his huge pipe bag, which contained animals and birds. The creating power spread mud over the water, thus replacing the water with land.  The creating power wept for the earth, and his tears became streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. He created a rainbow as a sign he would not flood the earth again, but also warned mankind to be good. [Erdoes and Ortiz, pp. 496-499]

China’s story of the flood is fundamental to Chinese culture, literature, and poetry. As usual, humans were misbehaving. The Chinese god ordered Gong Gong, the god of water, to create a flood. Gong Gong’s flood lasted 22 years. Survivors lived high in the mountains and fought a day to day existence for survival. The hero of the story, Gun, stole growing soil and began to dam up the flood. The gods executed Gun but his son, Yu, sprang from Gun’s corpse and forced the gods to give him back the growing soil. This was used to counteract the flood so people could come back down from the mountains and begin farming again.

China in fact did experience a great flood during the reign of the Emperor Yao (approximately 300 BC). Chinese history books quote Yao saying:

“Like endless boiling water the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering.”

China’s flood myth is unique in that it has a specific date. A version with a more general timeline is the best known myth in Western culture – the story of Noah and the flood:

the Ark

God, upset at mankind’s wickedness, resolved to destroy it, but Noah was righteous and found favor with Him. God told Noah to build an ark, 450 x 75 x 45 feet, with three decks. Noah did so, and took aboard his family (8 people in all) and pairs of all kinds of animals (7 of the clean ones). For 40 days and nights, flood waters came from the heavens and from the deeps, until the highest mountains were covered. The waters flooded the earth for 150 days; then God sent a wind and the waters receded, and the ark came to rest in Ararat. After 40 days, Noah sent out a raven, which kept flying until the waters had dried up. He next sent out a dove, which returned without finding a perch. A week later he set out the dove again, and it returned with an olive leaf. The next week, the dove didn’t return. After a year and 10 days from the start of the flood, everyone and everything emerged from the ark. Noah sacrificed some clean animals and birds to God, and God, pleased with this, promised never again to destroy all living creatures with a flood, giving the rainbow as a sign of this covenant. (Genesis, Chapters 6-9).

Scripture scholars contend the biblical Great Flood occurred sometime within the last five centuries, which realistically makes it somewhere between 2000 and 3000 BC. There is no timeline in the Hindu scriptures regarding the first human, Manu, negotiating with a fish. In return for protection by Manu from larger fish, the fish promises to protect Manu from an impending deluge. The fish is really the Lord Vishnu, who floods the world to vanquish moral depravity. The virtuous Manu is the sole survivor. He makes on offering to the Lord and from this offering a woman appears, making repopulation possible. A new generation of humans begins, under the moral code of the caste system.

Hindu flood myth

The major flood myths blame mankind’s wickedness for provoking God (or gods) to punish ill deeds with a massive flood. When humanity is wiped out God is appeased, and everyone gets to start over. An exception to the wicked man/angry God theme is a Babylonian flood myth in which the deluge is the gods solution for human overpopulation. One of the gods (Enki) told a man (Atrahasis) to build a boat for his family and animals. After the flood ended the gods took further precautions against overpopulation by creating stillbirths and miscarriages, and by making some women barren.

Flood myths come to us from all over the world. The Philippine islands have at least six different flood stories. Australia has fifteen. Africa has dozens, as does North America. The Mayans, Egyptians, Celtics, Aztecs and Sumerians all have myths of a Great Flood. It is logical to theorize that all these flood myths are based on an actual event in human history.

waters from the deep

For instance, a catastrophic flood would explain the extinction of dinosaurs. It would explain numerous discoveries of sea shells in mountain ranges, and fossil records consistent with a catastrophic geological event in Earth’s history. Many flood myths record water flooding not just from the sky but gushing up from the oceans. Flood geologists theorize that before the Flood there were interconnected  subterranean caverns of water, tightly compressed beneath the earth’s crust. If a split occurred in the crust it could possibly run around the entire earth, causing the compressed waters to pour up from below. Such an event would change the face of the earth, and perhaps explain how parts of the earth are land and parts are water.

Flood geology is a branch of creation science, and is scorned by the professional scientific community as a pseudo-science. Anthropologists claim that all the accounts of a great flood are explained by the fact that most of the human population lives near water, and unusually severe floods happen to everyone. Surely they are recorded by each civilization’s historians, but each flood is a separate event, not a world-wide flood.

But how do we explain the large boat resting 4,600 meters above sea level on the snowline of Mount Ararat? The area, which is on the border between Turkey and Armenia, is covered in ice much of the year, and threats of avalanche are omnipresent. Nevertheless, it has been visited by more than three dozen explorers over the centuries, including Marco Polo in 1269.

Noah's Ark?

In 1840 an earthquake created a canyon on the side of the mountain the boat was resting on and shifted its position.  During World War II American pilots flying over Mount Ararat described a large boat-like structure on the mountain. In 2007 Turkish explorers climbed the mountain and filmed the boat from the outside and the inside. Nearly all flood myths involve a boat, but only one flood myth specifies that when the waters receded the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.

Perhaps something we can all agree on is that every civilization has its trials and traumas, be it wars, droughts, or floods. Rather than debate which story is “right”, let us share our experiences and be stronger and more united for it.


R.C. Armour, North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, (1905).

Campbell, Joseph, Myths of light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal. Novato, California: New World Library, 2003.

Dundes, Alan (ed.) The Flood Myth, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988.

Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Editors, American Indian Myths and Legends, Pantheon Fairytale and Folklore Library.

Mayor, Adrienne (2011). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times: with a new introduction by the author. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The new scientific discoveries about the event that changed history, Simon & Schuster, (1998).

Yang, Lihui, et al. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University

Death and Glory: Ascending Mount Everest73

By Apr 18, 2014 Edited Jun 7, 2015 2 3 229 24

Mount EWverest peak

“Climbers who die on the mountain are left where they perish because the effects of altitude make it nearly impossible to drag bodies away. Those ascending Everest pass through an icy graveyard littered with remnants of old tents and equipment, empty oxygen canisters, and frozen corpses.” Borgna Brunner, Everest Almanac.

Corpse on Everest

There is an area of the great mountain called the death zone because of everyone who has died there. Bitter cold instantly freezes exposed flesh. Snow is frozen solid and slippery enough to send you sliding to your doom. Two hundred mile per hour jet stream winds can blow you off the mountain. You can pass out from oxygen deprivation and fall, or pass out and die. Frozen corpses in the death zone may rest forever on Mount Everest.

May 29 is the anniversary of the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest. In 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay toiled up the southern face of the mountain, a shrewd route selected after careful planning. At long last Hilary set his foot on the summit. Then Sherpa Tenzing did. The two men rejoiced and hugged each other. Hilary took pictures of the view. Sherpa Tenzing waved flags from England, Nepal, and India. They buried sweets and a cross in the snow.

Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing

Hilary described the peak of Everest as “a symmetrical, beautiful snow cone summit.” To avoid becoming corpses, however, Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing could only spend fifteen minutes at the top of the world. Their oxygen supply was low, and they had to descend back through the death zone, that hellish part of the earth that does not have enough oxygen to sustain human life.

Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing made it down alive, arriving at base camp looking like death warmed over. Seeing their condition, their comrades assumed they had failed to reach the summit. When they learned the happy truth there were toasts and huzzahs all around. Queen Elizabeth, overlooking the fact that Hilary was a mere Kiwi, knighted him immediately.

The feat of Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing was the culmination of a century of fascination over Himalayan mountains by the British government. One of the positive aspects of British colonialism in India was the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, its borders, and the Himalayan mountain range. The survey was an ambitious attempt to explore and define the geography, distances, and heights of the wild lands of India, Nepal, and Tibet. When the project began in 1802 it was intended to last five years. Sixty years and seven hundred employees later, the Survey not only completely mapped out India, it determined with impressive accuracy the heights of the highest peaks of the Himalayan mountains.

Colonel George Everest

The highest peak was named Peak XV. As Surveyor General of India, Welsh geographer George Everest was responsible for planning and executing the rigorously scientific measurements that resulted in Peak XV being declared 29,002 feet high. So instrumental was Colonel Everest to this endeavor that his successors named Peak XV after him. Everest complained to no avail. It may have been a small victory for him that the pronunciation of Mount Everest (EV-er-est) is different than the actual pronunciation of his name (EEVE-wrist).

Map of Everest

The great mountain had other, older names from its neighbors in Nepal, Tibet, and China. Tibetans called it Chomolungma (“Holy Mother”), and built monasteries in the foothills. Chinese call it Zhumulangma (“Holy Mother Peak”), and had explored it since the 1700’s. The newest name for Everest was coined by the Nepalese government in the 1960’s: Sagarmatha (“Goddess of the Sky”). In 1975 the Chinese surveyed Everest and amended its height to 29,029 feet. It is the highest mountain above sea level in the world, and also the highest borderland: Everest’s summit marks the border between Tibet (China) and Nepal.

George Mallory

All the early recorded climbs of Everest were done by the British. The most famous climber was George Mallory, a Cambridge graduate, star athlete, and climbing prodigy. In 1924 Mallory and his partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine started in Tibet and took a northern route up Everest. They left base camp on June 8, 1924, and never came back. News of their disappearance shocked Britain, who proclaimed the two climbers  national heroes in a memorial service attended by the British Parliament and the Royal Family. Over the years there was speculation as to whether Mallory had made it to the top of Everest before perishing. Was he the first human to set foot on the summit?

The British kept climbing Everest during the 1930’s. There was even an attempt (unsuccessful) to fly a plane over Everest in order to drop a Union Jack flag on the summit. The first conqueror of Mount Everest, however, was a most unlikely one.

Edmund Hilary was a small, shy, bookish boy who grew up to be six feet five inches high, serve in the New Zealand Royal Air Force during World War II, and return home to become a beekeeper. He liked climbing mountains too, and became part of the ninth British expedition to Mount Everest. After one team failed, Hilary and Tenzing were ordered up the mountain.

Hilary and Norgay

All went according to plan until the two came upon a sheer forty foot rock wall. Somehow Hilary wedged himself into and up a crack in the rock face. Tenzing followed. This part of the mountain is now referred to as “the Hilary Step.” From there it was on to the summit, or in the words of Sir Edmund Hilary: “A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on top.”

Hilary went on to explore the North Pole and South Pole. He became the only man to ever stand on both poles and on the top of Everest. Hilary created the Himalayan Trust foundation to develop schools and hospitals for the Sherpas, an ethnic group inhabiting the mountains of Nepal. Modest and mild mannered, he preferred reading books at home in New Zealand to the public spotlight.

In 1999 the BBC sponsored a research expedition to find the bodies of George Mallory and his partner Irvine. At about 27,000 feet on the north side of the mountain a corpse was found, freeze dried and mummified. The name tag on the clothing read “G. Leigh Mallory.” An Anglican requiem service was performed and the body was covered and left where it was. To this day no one knows if Mallory was the first to reach the top of Everest. Most mountaineers, however, do not consider a climb to be successful unless the climber returns to base camp alive.

Since Hilary’s ascent of Everest, about 4,000 other climbers have reached the top. Climbing Everest is big business these days. It costs between $50,000 and $100,000 per individual to do it. None of it would be possible without the silent workhorses of Everest, the Sherpas, who go ahead of the climbers to set scaling ropes over the many difficult sections of the mountain, and position aluminum ladders over glacial crevasses.


There are about two hundred corpses on the mountains, and a hundred tons of rubbish. Nepal’s government began a clean up of Everest in 2001. In 2003 Sir Edmund commented on the recent rush to the top of Everest:

“I find it all rather sad. I like to think of Everest as a great mountaineering challenge, and when you’ve got people just streaming up the mountain – well, many of them are just climbing it to get their name in the paper really. I do believe that many of the climbs on the mountain now lack that sense of success and exhilaration that we gained from going up. There was a much bigger challenge for us than there has been for later expeditions.”

Monastery near Everest

In 2008 Sir Edmund Hilary died of a heart attack at his home in New Zealand. After a state funeral, his body lay in state at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Then Hilary’s body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in Auckland. Some ashes were saved and sent to a monastery in Nepal. Hilary presently appears on New Zealand currency and stamps.

People from all over the world come to Everest. But if anyone thinks Mount Everest has become child’s play, a recent event provides a chilling counterpoint. On April 18 2014 an avalanche on the mountain buried thirteen Sherpa guides. The point is: you may be able to ascend Mount Everest, but you will not conquer it.

Update, May 2014: The tragic avalanche on the Khumbu icefall of Mount Everest prompted a labor dispute between the Sherpas and the government of Nepal, which pockets millions of dollars from the Everest tourism industry every year. The Sherpas, by contrast, make $5,000 a year and have no worker’s compensation, health insurance, or life insurance. Sherpas complain that every year their job becomes more and more dangerous, as inexperienced but wealthy climbers expect the Sherpas to chauffeur them up a very dangerous mountain.

Tempers ignited when the Nepalese government offered the Sherpa community a money settlement of roughly $400 for each lost life. This was received as a profound insult and the Sherpas voted to boycott the climbing season, which would effectively end the climbing season and smack everyone hard in the wallet, especially the climbers who had already paid tens of thousands of dollars in anticipation of a mountain climb. Even so, some of the climbers were outspoken supporters of the Sherpa boycott. Now the government of Nepal is creating a relief fund for the Sherpas…


BBC News, On this day in History, May 29 1953.

Mount Everest, World’s Highest Mountain,

New World Encyclopedia, Mount Everest

National Geographic: Everest: Pictures and stories,

Mount Everest: History, Facts

Brunner, Borgna, “Mortals on Mount Olympus – A history of climbing Mount Everest.”

David Fickling, The Guardian, March 12, 2003, “We knocked the Bastard Off,” a profile of Sir Edmund Hilary.

The Legend of the Shroud of Turin 73

By Mar 29, 2014 Edited Apr 5, 2015 1 3 213 25

Positive and negative images of the Shroud

With a lot of hope, and also with a little trepidation, I am happy to announce that a special exhibition of the Holy Shroud will be held in the Cathedral of Turin in 2015.”Cesare Nosiglia, Archbishop of Turin, Papal Custodian of the Holy Shroud.

Millions of Christians around the world believe the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth that covered Jesus’ dead body in the sepulcher before his resurrection Easter morning. Over the centuries there has been controversy over the Shroud’s authenticity, and its long life has become a source of legend.

The shroud itself is fourteen feet long and three and one half feet wide. The threads are hand spun.  The fabric is hand woven in a distinctive herringbone twill. Since most crucifixion victims were criminals, it was remarkable that one would be adorned with such a valuable piece of linen. More often the corpse of a crucifixion victim was left to the tender mercies of wild animals and carrion birds.

Yet St. Matthew stresses that one crucifixion victim was wrapped “in a clean linen cloth”(Matthew 27:29). Then his body was placed in “a new sepulcher, wherein no man had yet been laid” (John 19:41). The burial shroud was next seen by St. John on Easter morning. The linen cloth was no longer clean. It held the blood stains and complete body image, front and back, of the crucified man. That was all it held, for the man was gone.

The shroud was taken and hidden by Christ’s disciples, and secretly venerated. In 726 it was moved to Edessa for safety reasons. Edessa deputies handed the Shroud over to the besieging Constantinople army in 944, in return for the armies departure. In 1204 it was Constantinople’s turn to be on the wrong side of an army. French crusaders sacked the city and left with, among many other things, the Holy Shroud. Then the Shroud disappeared for one hundred and fifty years.

In the 1300’s the Shroud popped up in Lirey, France. In 1532 the chapel the Shroud resided in caught fire. The heat from the blaze melted the silver lining of the reliquary protecting the Shroud. Today one can see burn holes where molten silver dripped onto the fabric.

After that the Shroud was moved permanently to Italy. The dukes of Savoy housed the Shroud in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in their capital city of Turin. The Shroud has been there ever since, which accounts for it being referred to as the Shroud of Turin (it is equally well known as the Holy Shroud).

Shroud "negative" image

In 1898 the Shroud was displayed in a special exhibition. What could be seen by the naked eye was a faint, full scale outline of a man. An amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, used a new invention, the camera, to photograph the Shroud. When he developed the film he discovered that the Shroud image was actually a “negative” image of the crucified man. The positive image showed up on the photographic negative. This new image was full of remarkable detail not visible on the Shroud fabric. This inadvertent discovery changed everything.

Secondo Pia

The photographic negatives revealed the stark, violent beauty of a savagely beaten man whose disfigured face bore a calm dignity. It was as if the Holy Shroud had waited patiently until mankind had the knowledge to make cameras in order to begin revealing its mysteries.

In the ensuing century, no archeological artifact has been studied more than the Holy Shroud. Critics point to a 1988 carbon dating of parts of the Shroud fabric as medieval to dismiss the Shroud as a forgery. Others argue: what sort of medieval forger would have the technology to create a photographic negative and positive image on a piece of linen, or the patience to wait centuries for his genius to be discovered?

3D Jesus

Researchers have used cutting edge technology to discover astounding facts about how the man on the Shroud was tortured and crucified. There are blood rivulets that flow in the proper direction, scourge marks that perfectly match the sort of scourges used by Roman soldiers during Christ’s life, and puncture wounds in the forehead from a crown of thorns. Medical examiners were astonished to find that the location of the puncture wounds and clotted blood on the image corresponded exactly to cranial veins and arteries known in anatomy.

There was another detail that seemed forgery proof. Artists have always depicted Christ as having nail holes in the palms of his hands. The figure on the Shroud has a nail hole in his wrist. Medical examiner Pierre Barbet performed experiments putting nail holes through the hands of cadavers. The hand always pulled away from the nail when pressure was applied. But when he put the nail hole through a fold in the wrist (known as the “space of Destot”) the nail was supported by surrounding bone and ligaments and did not give way when traction was applied.

On the Shroud image the nail wound is right on the space of Destot. Doesn’t this contradict the biblical prophecy: “They have pierced my hands and feet”? Not necessarily, because anatomically the wrist has always been considered part of the hand. Would a medieval forger have dared to contradict traditional artistic depictions of Christ with holes in his palms for the sake of anatomical correctness?

The gospels mention a Roman soldier thrusting his spear into Christ’s side. This is the experienced death blow of a soldier: the spear blade would enter the chest cavity and pierce the heart. On the Shroud image there is an elliptical wound on the right chest two inches long and an inch wide: large enough for a doubting apostle to thrust his fingers through.

The way the details of the figure on the Shroud corresponded to history, anatomy, and biblical accounts was remarkable enough to create a new branch of science: Sindonology, the study of the Shroud. Another recent discovery was the ability of the faint image on the flat linen to yield a three dimensional head.

History Channel

The History Channel aired a two hour documentary  in 2010 on the recreation of a three dimensional CGI image of the face on the Shroud. The results were startling. The graphic artists involved remarked on how impossible it seemed that a flat piece of linen could yield such an image that conformed perfectly to the strictures of modern technology.

How many corpses can transmit a three-dimensional image of themselves onto a burial cloth? Perhaps a research project could be done on this, but it is likely that this phenomenon is peculiar to the Holy Shroud. The body image on the Shroud is perhaps its greatest mystery: a high resolution, anatomically perfect three dimensional image that is not absorbed into the Shroud linen, but rests lightly atop each minute linen fiber.

Tests have proven the body image is chemically pure, that is, not created by paint pigments, stains, dyes, blood, or protein deposits. Furthermore, the body image is “non-directional”, which means there are no brush strokes or any other indication the image was somehow applied to the linen by human hands. Really, what man-made conjuring could account for a body image on linen being inherently high resolution?

Microscopic examination of body image fibers reveal tiny granules at the top of each fiber. The granular density corresponds to the distance from the body of a particular part of the Shroud. Somehow the body transmitted these granules to the fabric, even though the granules were not absorbed by the fabric. Scientists agree there was some physical force emanating from the body that created the body image on the linen: a “flash of irradiation”, of light and energy intense enough to almost scorch the linen while leaving a picture for the world to marvel at. Christians would explain this by saying that at the moment of Resurrection divine life filled the body in an explosive spiritual and physical event; the evidence on the Shroud is proof of Jesus’ victory over death.

On Holy Saturday, 2013, the Archdiocese of Turin released high definition images of the Shroud online and on television. When magnified (on a tablet, for example), the images revealed details invisible to the naked eye. This was a controversial move by the Archbishop of Turin because of concern inside the Catholic Church that showing images of the Shroud on TV and the internet might cause the holy relic to be commercialized or trivialized. One year later it seems this concern was unwarranted.

Pope Francis

One might wonder at this point: what does the pope think of all this? Well, Pope Francis recently issued a statement about the Holy Shroud urging veneration of the object, but did not say whether he thought it was the actual shroud Jesus was buried in. In so doing he is following recent papal precedent. The Vatican has been skittish about the Holy Shroud since the 1988 carbon dating controversy and all the negative press about the Shroud that came after that. Even though today there are peer reviewed papers being published that openly question the validity of the 1988 carbon dating, the Vatican follows its own course. In previous centuries popes took the Shroud’s authenticity for  granted.

The Catholic Church, as owner of the Shroud of Turin, urges Christians to venerate the Shroud and what it represents. As a practical matter, however, it doesn’t matter whether the Shroud is real or not, because Jesus is real and everything he did is real and that is the essence of Christianity, not an ancient piece of linen. For Christians, everything is still true with or without the Shroud. However, the Shroud is a physical testament to Christians that their faith is not in vain.

We humans are fascinated by mysteries, so scientists will keep researching the Shroud, graphic artists will keep trying to reproduce it, and millions of people will come to Turin each year for a glimpse of the Shroud through its bulletproof casing. Perhaps some who look upon the image on the Shroud will wonder: is the Shroud of Turin the most remarkable forgery in the world? Or does the body it held belong to the most remarkable man in the world?

The Face of Jesus?


Pierre Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary, Dillen & Cie, 1950, Roman Catholic Books, Harrison Pennsylvania.

Werner Bulst, The Shroud of Turin, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1957.

Mark Fellows, A Second Coming, The Holy Shroud In the 20th Century, 1996, The Remnant Press.

John Heller, Report on the Shroud of Turin, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

Kenneth Stevenson, Verdict on the Shroud, Servant Books, 1981.

Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1978.

Frederick T. Zugibe, The Cross and the Shroud: A Medical Examiner Investigates the Crucifixion, Exposition Press, Inc., 1982.

Buddha’s Birthday, and the Birth of American Buddhism 64

By Mar 19, 2014 Edited Apr 19, 2014 1 0 63 9


Siddharta Gautama

April 8 is celebrated as the birthday of the Buddha in America, Japan, and other Asian countries. “Buddha,” which means “awakened one,” is more a title than a name. The founder of Buddhism’s real name was Siddharta Gautama. His remarkable life began in approximately 563 B.C. in northeastern India (today it is Nepal).

Gautama’s father was Suddhodana, the elected leader of the Shakya (“capable, able”) republic (also found in present day Nepal.) Gautama’s mother was a princess with a long name who was called Queen Maya for short. She and King Suddhodhana lived in Kapilvastu, the capital of the Shakya republic. They were childless the first twenty years of their marriage.

Then one night Queen Maya had a dream that four spirits took her away to a lake near the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The spirits bathed Maya and clothed her in celestial dress. Then a white elephant entered Maya’s womb. Elephants symbolize greatness in India. When Maya woke up she knew she had conceived a special child.

Ten months later, as Queen Maya was resting in the shade of a sal tree in the legendary gardens of Lumbini, she gave birth to the boy who would be known as Lord Buddha. Tradition has it that Maya died seven days after bringing the Buddha into the world. The baby was tended to by Maya’s sister, Maha Pajapati, who brought Gautama back to King Suddhodana.

So pleased was Suddhodana to finally have a son that he named the boy Siddharta (“the accomplished goal”), and invited all the sages and seers in his republic to foretell the boy’s life. Since it is an unwise wise man who tells a doting father his infant son is destined to be a royal loser, it is perhaps not surprising that all the seers predicted a magnificent career for young prince Siddharta as a king and Supreme Buddha. Whether they were actually clairvoyant or simply prudent, the sages were spot on about Gautama’s future.

Suddhodana kept Siddharta within the walls of his palace to protect him from human suffering. He did not protect him from marriage, however; at age sixteen Siddharta married and himself became a father. When he was twenty nine he ventured outside palace walls to discover the world in all its joys, pains, blessings, and sufferings.

So began a single-minded quest for the end of suffering, a quest that itself ended under the famous bodhi tree where Siddharta Gautama became fully enlightened after withstanding a final, furious assault by Mara. His victory over suffering and temptation proved he was fully deserving of the title of Lord Buddha.

Under the bodhi tree

The Buddha gathered his fellow spiritual seekers to him and began to share his path to enlightenment. For the next forty-five years Gautama taught “the Middle Way” of the “Noble Eightfold Path” in northeast and eastern India. At age eighty the Buddha reached Parinirvana, what Buddhists call the final deathless state. The Buddha’s last words for his disciples were: “Strive for your own liberation with diligence.”

Millions of Buddhist’s have done just that over the multitude of centuries since their leader’s life on earth. His teachings spread throughout India and Asia, where they were adjusted and adapted to different cultures and peoples. The assertion that the Chinese monk Huishen visited North America in the fifth century is probably a quaint legend, but by the nineteenth century Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism had infiltrated America.

HD Thoreau

In the 1800’s American philosopher Henry David Thoreau studied Buddhist philosophy. Thoreau’s Walden, a paean to the northern Maine wilderness he found solitude in, returns again and again to themes of mindfulness and awareness of the present moment.

Thoreau’s compatriot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, publicly collaborated with Thoreau to publish a translation of the Lotus Sutra, and privately declared in his journal: I have taught one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man.” Emerson joined another partner in crime, Walt Whitman, for lectures and public discussions at the Transcendentalists Club in Boston in 1836. Both were influenced by the non-dualism inherent in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.

At this time waves of Asian immigrants began to land on America’s west coast. Buddhist temples began appearing, and different strains of Buddhism spread roots in the new land. Chinese Buddhists brought their own blend of Buddhism and Taoism. Tibetan Buddhism (headed by the Dalai Lama), Japanese (Zen) Buddhism, and Theraveda Buddhism have all become firmly established in America’s vast cultural landscape.

Today American Buddhism is as large a religious group as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism (all these groups lag seriously behind Christianity and the non-religious). American Buddhism has had numerous charismatic leaders emerge, virtually all of them imported. An early leader in western Zen Buddhism, Shunryu Suzukim, declared:

“We are all born artists of life and, not knowing it, most of us fail to be so and the result is that we make a mess of our lives, asking: ‘What is the meaning of life?” The Zen man can tell them that they have all forgotten that they are born artists, creative artists of life, and that as soon as they realize that fact they will all be cured of neurosis or psychosis or whatever name they have for their trouble.”

Suzuki obviously overreaches with his diagnosis; some forms of mental illness require far more than words for treatment. Yet his vision of each human being as an artist and a work of art inspired many Americans in the 1950’s who were disenchanted with the glorification of consumerism and material possessions.

Jack Kerouac

Among those so inspired were members of the Beat movement started by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and all the other usual suspects. The Beat movement was a pointed rebuttal to 1950’s America, and it was fueled by Buddhist thoughts and ideas, a connection that Kerouac’s novel, Dharma Bums, makes explicit.

Besides Suzuki, there was the charismatic English clergyman, Alan Watts; the remarkable Tibetan savant Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche; the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and others. It is an interesting contradiction that a philosophy that preaches egolessness and “no-self” would have so many ego filled leaders, at least in America. Several Buddhist leaders ended up having feet of clay, a situation that seems to happen in every branch of organized religion.

alan watts

Presently the largest group of American Buddhists is immigrants from various Asian or Indian countries. Within this large group there are literally dozens of different types of Buddhism according to nationality, culture, or particular sect or sub sect.

Another group, smaller than the first but far more visible and influential, is sometimes called “elitist Buddhism.” Why “elite”? Well, because those Americans who have converted to Buddhism are almost exclusively white, with advanced degrees, good incomes, and the same left leaning political views. Although small in number, “elite Buddhists” are high profile folks: garnering much sympathetic media attention, selling books, giving retreats, preaching enlightenment and making a decent living at it to boot.

The American version of Buddhism is perhaps best expressed by Jonathan Kabat-Zinn, a doctor of molecular biology who has made a science of the benefits of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn got hooked on meditation, then turned his scientific mind to the centuries old practice of mindfulness. He developed a program called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) that has spread to over 100 locations across the country.

The marketing is interesting. The words Buddhism, God, religion, and rules are not used. Instead the focus is on science and the rigorous studies proving mindfulness to increase work productivity, alertness, awareness, and quality of life. It is being pursued by the military, by educators, and corporations who want to get the most from their employees.

But you don’t need to be an affluent liberal or scientist – or Buddhist – to profit from the Buddha’s teachings. The practice of mindfulness – being fully aware in the present moment – can be done by anyone. The attractive thing to Americans about Buddhism is that you don’t have to learn a bunch of rules (or tithe). You can benefit from it just by practicing. Mindfulness is a refreshing antidote for minds suffering from sensory overload or too much multi-tasking.

You can practice mindfulness in meditation, or in your waking day to day affairs. Look at your day as a wealth of moments, and try to be present for each one. When you fail, have a good natured laugh and try it again. It is the process of becoming your own best friend, and slowly developing loving-kindness towards your own self: not in a self-indulgent, narcissistic way, but in a gentle, nurturing, healing fashion towards yourself and your miseries. Once you can be kind to yourself you can expand your kindness to others.

That’s the basic idea, anyway. I am not a Buddhist but I have definitely benefited from meditation, mindfulness practice, and Buddhist psychology. Perhaps you will too. Or not. At any rate, happy Birthday Buddha. Perhaps we’ll all meet up one day when the dharma wheel stops turning and samsara and nirvana blend into one. Until then.

dharma wheel


Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, New World Mindfulness, from the Founding Fathers, Emerson and Thoreau to your personal practice, Healing Arts Press, 2012.

Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life, Simon and Schuster, New York 1980.

Kate Pickert, The Mindfulness Revolution, Time Magazine, Volume 183, Number 4, February 2, 2014.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1975.

Stephan Schuhmacher, Zen In Plain English, Watkins Publishing, London, 2009.

Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstacy, the Laundry, How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, Bantam Books, 2000.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice, Weatherhill Publishing, Second Printing, 2000.

Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala Publishing, 1987.

Joseph Goldstein, The Experience of Insight, A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala Publishing, 1987.