Stephen S. Hall's

Notes to Poem:

Wisdom— Some Questions

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Stephen S. Hall gave a talk on his new book WISDOM: From Philosophy to Neuroscience on Thursday, March 18, 2010, 7 pm, at Stanford's Wallenberg Hall. The book examines ancient concepts of wisdom through the lens of modern brain science. It is based in part on "The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis", a New York Times Magazine article (May 6, 2007). Jim Holt had just written "A Word About the Wise" in NY Times Book Review (March 14, 2010). He did not find out what wisdom really is, nor some practical ideas on how to be wiser. Nevertheless, he found the reading oddly rewarding. I told my friend Rudy who's always reading articles on the brain about this lecture which he attended. I began this poem "Wisdom: Some Questions" at Stanford Art Library a few hours before Hall's lecture on March 18. These Notes are attempts in exploring some answers to my own queries on the nature of wisdom. May readers find them stimulating.

Commentary to Poem: "Wisdom— Some Questions"

Is wisdom the rock of ages inscribed on some stone tablet—
lessons to guide us through our lives?

Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Moses Striking the Rock
from La Sainte Bible (1865)
"Rock of Ages" is a popular Christian hymn by Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady (1763) and first published in The Gospel Magazine (1775). Lyrics:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in thee." Biblical references: Moses striking the rock to produce water, and Saint Paul's claim that the rock was Christ. "Behold, I will stand before thee there on the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink" (Exodus 17.6). "They did all drink of the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ" (I Corinthians 10.4). Stone tablet may refer to the Ten Commandments (Doré's engraving)

Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Moses & 10 Commandments
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (1659)
or any sacred inscriptions on temples and shrines for spiritual guidance. Rock symbolizes permanence, solidity, and integrity. Like the stone, it is held to be the dwelling-place of a god (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, p. 262). Christianity was founded when Christ said "That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16.18). The omphalos is an ancient religious stone that allows direct communication with the gods. "What the Delphians called omphalos is made of white stone and is considered to be at the centre of the earth" (Pausanias, 10.16.3). Muslims believe the Black Stone to be a relic dating back to Adam and Eve. Some consider it to be a tektite or meteorite. It is 30 cm (12 inches) in diameter, and 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the ground, located in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the sacred stone building towards which Muslims pray in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Lao Tzu says in Tao Te Ching, XV: "The wise ones of old / Simple like the uncarved block; / Open-minded like a valley." We see that the uncarved block is simple and open-minded like the mind of a sage. Hence, this Taoist rock may be comparable to wisdom (Sculpting Uncarved Block).

Or is wisdom waves of water ever-changing
that cannot be bottled or held firmly in our hands?

Water is essential for life. We drink it when thirsty, and wash ourselves with it when dirty. In the Bible, we find water associated with wisdom and the spirit. Moses produced water when he struck the rock to quench his people's thirst (Exodus 17.6). John the Baptist initiated Jesus in the River Jordan"And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3.16-17). At the well, Jesus told the Samarian woman: "Whosoever drinks of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." (John 4.13-14). Lao Tzu says in Tao Te Ching, 8: "The supreme good is like water, nourishing all without effort. While people aspire high places, water is content to remain low. Thus it is like the Tao." For water to be refreshing, it must be ever-flowing and not remain static and stale. Likewise for wisdom, as it cannot be formulated and bottled. And if we attempt to clutch it in our hands, it will escape our grasp. [Image: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1833) by Hokusai (1760-1849)]

Or is wisdom some vaporous vagabond without
shape or form that can't be confined or defined?

Whenever Buddha was asked about the nature of Nirvana, he replied "Neti, Neti" ("Not this, Not this") as anything that can be defined would be limited. Wisdom is similar to Nirvana, and it would be unwise to confine or define it. The sage Ramana Maharshi said the deep sleep state is more real than the dream or the waking state because it is more subtle than the gross material world that's illusory. Taking this analogy to water or H2O— steam or vapor would be more subtle than liquid or ice. Certainly in terms of molecular motion, vapor is moving faster than its form in ice or liquid. Ice and liquid may be packed or bottled, but it's hard to put a puff of cloud or steam in a flask. In the Book of Wisdom, 7.24-25 (circa 100 B.C.) we find "For wisdom is more active than all active things; and reaches everywhere, by reason of her purity. For she is a vapour of the power of God." Leicester Holland (1933) has suggested that the omphalos stone at Delphi was hollow to channel intoxicating vapours breathed by the Oracle. Strabo says "The place where the oracle is delivered is a deep hollow antron, the entrance to which is not very wide. From it rises an exhalation that inspires divine frenzy. Over the mouth (stomion) is placed a lofty tripod on which the Pythian priestess ascends to receive the exhalation, after which she gives the prophetic response." Plutarch refers to the sacred vapor which inspired the priestess, and Pollux remarks: "The cover upon the Delphic tripod on which the prophetess sits is called holmos." [American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 37, (April-June 1933), 201-214] [(Image: Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Seine at Giverny, Morning Mists (1897), North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC]

Is wisdom distilled knowledge from the teachings of
ancient wise men with insight, good sense, and judgment?

Wisdom definition from Webster Dictionary1 a: accumulated philosophic or scientific learning: KNOWLEDGE; b: ability to discern inner qualities and relationships: INSIGHT; c: good sense: JUDGMENT; d: generally accepted belief; 2: a wise attitude, belief, or course of action; 3: the teachings of the ancient wise men (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, MA, 1987, p. 1354). Platonic epistemology: Plato drew a sharp distinction between knowledge, which is certain, and mere opinion, which is not certain. Opinions derive from the shifting world of sensation; knowledge derives from the world of timeless forms, or essences. In Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" (Republic VII.5141-520a), those prisoners tied up in the cave are bound to their illusory egos. The one who escaped to the outside and saw the Sun instead of shadows is one experiencing cosmic consciousness or wisdom. [(Image: Plato (428-348 B.C.) from School of Athens, 1508, by Raphael, Vatican Museum]

Does wisdom reside in the brain, the heart, or the gut,
or perhaps not in the body but the soul?

The human brain is the center of the human nervous system containing 50-100 billion (1011) neurons, of which about 10 billion (1011) are cortical pyramidal cells. These cells pass signals to each other via as many as 1000 trilion (1015) synaptic connections. Dilip Jeste (UCSD) hypothesized the wisdom can be found in the brain's primitive limbic system as well as in the prefrontal cortex. The human heart provides a continuous blood circulation through the cardiac cycle and is one of the most vital organs in the human body. The heart pumps about 2000 gallons of blood a day. In The Wisdom of the Heart, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, offers some practical advice for our life. The human gut is the gastrointestinal tract comprising the small intestine following the stomach, and the large intestine, and is where the vast majority of digestion and absorption of food takes place. The gut is also the visceral or emotional part of a person. Business 2.0 had a cover article "How to Think With Your Gut" (By Thomas A. Stewart, November 2002) subtitled "How the geniuses behind the Osbournes, the Mini, Federal Express, and Starbucks followed their instincts and reached success". Psychologists have a term to describe people who are in unusually close contact with their gut feelings— "high intuitives". In complex or chaotic situations on a battlefield or commodities trading floor, intuition usually beats rational analysis, so gut feeling beats decisions from the brain. Scientists found 5,600 different species or strains of bacteria living in human intestines, making gut bacteria ten times more diverse than expected. Could it be that these thousands of gut bacteria are wiser than the 100 billion neurons in the brain? The human soul is the immaterial or eternal part of a living being commonly held to be separable in existence from the body— the metaphysical part as distinct from the physical part. According to Genesis 2.7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." If the soul is connected to breath, then it is Prana (Sanskrit for "vital life"). In Vedantic philosophy, Prana is the life-sustaining force of living beings and vital energy, comparable to the Chinese notion of Ch'i or Qi translated as "energy flow". If wisdom is in the soul, then it's never static but elusive and ever-flowing. (Wikipedia: Brain, Heart, Gut, Soul); Books on the Brain, Neural Network Simulation, Is Wisdom in the Brain?, Wisdom in the Brain, Seat of Wisdom; Overview of Gut, digestive system) (Image: "Symbolical Head illustrating the Natural Language of the Faculties" (Samuel Wells' Phrenological Chart, 1891)

If "older-and-wiser" is true, why did Christ say
"the child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven"?

"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew, 18.1-4). The Chinese sage Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote: "The sage is one who has a childlike heart." (Works of Mencius, 4B.12). Lao Tzu (604-517 B.C.) said "One who is in harmony with the Tao / is like a newborn babe. / Poisonous insects do not sting him. / Wild beasts do not attack him. / Birds of prey do not pounce upon him. / His bones are weak and muscles tender, / yet his tiny grip is strong. / Not knowing the union of male & female, / his vital organs are complete. / So intense is his vitality. / that he can cry all day and not get hoarse, / so balanced is his harmony. / Being in harmony, he abides in the eternal. / Abiding in the eternal is enlightenment. / Nourishing life is indeed a blessing. / Breathing like a babe is real strength. / Those that become strong also get old, / which is in contrast to the eternal Tao / whose spirit is always flowing and fresh." (Tao Te Ching, 55). Wordsworth writes in "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold" (1802): "The Child is father of the Man; / I could wish my days to be / Bound to each by natural piety." This may sound illogical until we realize that we were all children before becoming grownups. Thus the Child in us is historically older than the adult. The physicist Freeman Dyson wrote about his Dream Vision of God in Disturbing the Universe (1979) and was surprised to find God to be a three-month-old babe on the throne. (Image: Anonymous painting of "Jesus with children").

If "wisdom is more precious than rubies",
why was The Book of Wisdom left out of the King James Bible?

"Happy is the man that finds wisdom, and the man that gets understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things you can desire are not to be compared unto her." (Proverbs, 3.13-15). The Book of Wisdom (circa 100 B.C.) opens with "Love justice, you who are judges of earth. Think of the Lord in goodness, and seek him in the simple heart." (I.1). The first three chapters exhorts rulers and judges to love and exercise justice and wisdom. The next three teaches that wisdom proceeds from God, and is procured by prayer and a good life. The last ten chapters show the excellent effects and utility of wisdom and justice. Some passages from Book of Wisdom: "For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness." (7.26) "For God loves none but him that dwells with wisdom. For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it." (7.28-29) The Book of Wisdom has been ascribed to King Solomon, but since it is written in Greek, scholars believe in a later authorship. It is not included in the canonical texts of The King James Bible (1611), and is considered Apocrypha along with Tobit and Ecclesiasticus, but was included in The Jerusalem Bible (1966). [Image: Romanós' copy of Book of Wisdom from The Jerusalem Bible (1966)]

Why is the Allegory of Wisdom always portrayed as a woman and not a man?

Robert Lewis Reid (1862-1929)
Wisdom (1896), Mural, Second floor,
North corridor, Library of Congress,
Thomas Jefferson Building Washington, D.C.,
Caption quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson
"Knowledge comes but Wisdom lingers"

Allegory of Wisdom by Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577), Allegory of Wisdom and Strength (1580) by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), and Wisdom Mural (1896) by Robert Lewis Reid (1862-1929) are paintings depicting Wisdom as a woman. Pistis Sophia is an important Gnostic text (circa 2nd Century) translated as Faith in Wisdom. The female divinity of gnosticism is Sophia, identified with the Holy Spirit, or the Universal Mother. She was envisaged as the Psyche of the world and the female aspect of Logos. A Russian Icon Sophia, the Holy Wisdom (1812) shows Wisdom as female above a shrine worshipped by holy men. Goethe's Faust ends with the words “Eternal feminine leads us above” similar to Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching 28: "to cling to the feminine". In Dante's Divine Comedy (1321) on the soul's ascent, the poet Virgil took Dante only up to the heights of Mount Purgatory. From that point onward, only Beatrice could guide Dante to Paradise. Perhaps the male principle (yang or animus) as represented by Virgil or logic could take our intellect only so far, and we need to harness the feminine principle (yin or anima) as represented by Beatrice or intuition to penetrate the realm beyond space-time so we could experience the transcendence and bliss of paradise.

If light symbolizes knowledge, how come a bird of the night,
the owl came to stand for wisdom?

Attic Greek Coin
(circa 450-40 B.C.)
Silver tetradrachmae coin
Coin weight of 17.2 grams
Obverse: Head of Athena
Reverse: Owl— Athena's bird,
olive leaves, berry, waning moon;
AΘE: Athens Abbreviated
Greek Athenian Owl Coin
History of Athenian Owls

Athena's mother was Metis
("wisdom", "skill", or "craft").
Her father was Zeus who swallowed
the pregnant Metis when prophecy
said that his offspring would be
greater than he. Zeus complained
of headaches and asked Hephaestus
to split open his head. Out came
Athena (theou noesis, "mind of god"),
fully armed with weapons given by
her mother Metis to defend herself.

The Sanskrit word for guru is composed of gu (darkness) and ru (light). So a guru guides us from darkness to light or from ignorance to knowledge. The wise old owl has become a cliché referring this bird of the night as symbolic for wisdom. "A Wise Old Owl" is a nursery rhyme— "A wise old owl lived in an oak / The more he saw the less he spoke / The less he spoke the more he heard. / Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?" It was quoted by John D. Rockefeller in 1915, but believed to be from a much older proverb (Roud Folk Song Index #7734). The owl is an attribute of Athena, goddess of wisdom (owl mythology). Athena's common epithet is glaukopis, meaning "bright-eyed" or "with gleaming eyes". The word is a combination of glaukos ("gleaming") and ops ("eye"). It is interesting that glaux ("owl") is from the same root, presumbaly because of the bird's own distinctive eyes. An owl's neck has 14 vertebrae, so it can turn its head a full 270o! Thus, in addition to its acute night vision, the owl has a wider perspective (= wisdom) than all the other creatures. Relationship between darkness and wisdom may be found in a Gnostic Coptic text On the Origin of the World (circa 150 AD) on the emerging of primeval light— "They are all mistaken, because they are not acquainted with the origin of chaos, nor with its root... How well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which has been called by the name darkness. And the shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning. It is, moreover, clear that it existed before chaos came into being, and that the latter is posterior to the first product... after the natural structure of the immortal beings had completed developed out of the infinite, a likeness then emanated from Pistis (Faith), it is called Sophia (Wisdom). It exercised volition and became a product resembling the primeval light. And immediately her will manifested itself as a likeness of heaven, having an unimaginable magnitude; it was between the immortal beings and those things that came into being after them, like Sophia functioned as a veil dividing mankind from the things above." (On the Origin of the World (II.5 & XIII.2), Nag Hammadi Library, Edited by James M. Robinson, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, pp. 171-172)

If you consult the Tarot deck whom would you trust—
the Magus, Hermit, High Priestess, or the Fool?

[Images: Rider-Waite Tarot Deck (1909), illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith from instructions of mystic A.E. Waite]
THE MAGUS (I): The first trump or Major Arcana card in Tarot decks, the Magus or Magician has the face of Apollo, the sun god, with a smile and shining eyes. Above his head is the sign of the Holy Spirit, like an endless cord forming the lemniscate of infinity. On his waist is a serpent-girdle, the ouroboros, serpent devouring its own tail, symbolizing eternity. In the Magician's right hand is a wand raised towards heaven, while his left hand is pointing to the earth. This gesture symbolizes the ability of the Magus to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. On the table in front of the Magician are the four Tarot suits signifying the four elements— earth, water, air, fire. Interpretations: Action, Consciousness, Concentration, Personal power; Practicality, Energy, Creativity, Movement; Precision, Conviction, Manipulation, Self-confidence; Being objective, Focusing, Determination, Initiative. Magi (plural for Magus) is a term used to denote a follower of Zoroaster, who can read the stars (astrologer) and manipulate the fate that the stars foretold. The English term "magi" is commonly used for "wise men from the East" who brought gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense to the Christ Child in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.1, 2.11). In Esoteric Christianity, one who is skilled, profound, or a master of the esoteric or a magical art is titled a 'magus' or 'mage'. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the title "Magus" designated the highest attainable grade of magic (Moses, Buddha, and Lao Tzu being some examples of those who attained this grade). To be a Magi means to journey to give gifts. The Magus (1966) is the first novel by British author John Fowles. It tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a teacher on a Greek island, who finds himself embroiled in psychological illusions of a magus who turns out to be a master trickster.
THE HERMIT (IX): The ninth trump or Major Arcana card in Tarot decks, the Hermit carries a staff in his left hand and a lantern in his right hand. In the background is a mountain range. This image may depict Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 B.C.), Greek cynic philosopher who made a virtue of extreme poverty. He was well known for his carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Such a man of authenticity would be one who has abandoned his ego for cosmic consciousness. Interpretations: Silence, Introspection, Guidance, Reflection; Solitude, Looking inward, Reclusion, Being quiet; Inner search, Deep understanding, Isolation; Distance, Retreat, Philosophical attitude. The Hermit withdraws from society to explore his inner self through meditation. Having found inner peace, he comes out of isolation to share his wisdom with others. In Ten Oxherd Drawings, Zen Master Kakuan (12th century) depicted the final stage of enlightenment as "The Sage Enters the Market Place" (oneness with humanity). The distant mountains in the background of Tarot card IX may have been the hermit's former abode where he enjoyed the bliss of serenity. But now he is actively engaged in everyday life, out in the street, helping others to realize their true nature.
THE HIGH PRIESTESS (II): The second trump or Major Arcana card in Tarot decks, the High Priestess wears plain blue robes and sits with her hands in her lap. She has a lunar crescent at her feet, a horned diadem centering a globe on her head and a large cross on her breast. The scroll in her hands, partly covered by her mantle, bears the word TORA. She is seated between the black and white pillars— 'B' and 'J' for Boaz & Jachin— of the mystic Temple of Solomon. The veil of the Temple is behind her: it is embroidered with palm leaves and pomegranates. Further behind all of that is what seems to be a body of water, most probably the sea. In the 1715 Marseilles Tarot, this card was named "La Papess" based on the legendary female Pope Joan who supposedly reigned for a few years around 1099. Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719-1784) renamed this trump "The High Priestess" (1773) after his vision of an ancient Egyptian link with the Tarot. The Priestess of ancient Egypt (Dewat Neter) performed temple rites reserved for the highest level of the clergy. The Priestess of Demeter, Chamyne, was accorded a privileged seat at the Olympics games (Pausanias, 6.20.9). The last priest at Delphi, Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) dedicated his books On the Bravery of Women and Isis and Osiris to his friend Clea, a priestess at Delphi. Interpretations: Knowingness, Love, Relationships; Wisdom, Sound judgment, Serenity; Common sense, Intuition; Mystical vision, Introspection, Otherworldliness. Osho Tarot calls this card "Inner Voice" and depicts it as a quiet person with a circle face in her center, holding a crystal in both hands and surrounded by two dolphins, a crescent-moon crown, and water. Naomi Ozaniec, in Illustrated Guide to Tarot (1999) writes "High Priestess opens the doorway into the realm of Goddess. Here we discover gifts of intuition, magical timing, creative flowering, wise dreaming, prophetic knowing, deep understanding, ancient remembering, and blessed communion." (p. 36) The Sibyl is a priestess who prophesized at holy sites such as Delphi and Pessinos. The Sibylline Books were a collection of oracular utterances purchased from a sibyl by the last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and consulted at momentous times. These oracles were compiled by the Erythraen Sibyl and Cumaean Sibyl. Raphael has painted these Sybils (1514) in Rome's Santa Maria della Pace. Michelangelo has also painted five Sibyls (1512) at Vatican's Sistine Chapel (Cumaean, Delphic, Eritrean, Libyan, Persian). In Plato's Symposium (circa 390 B.C.), Socrates claims that Diotima, a woman from Mantinea that he met, taught him everything he knows on the subject of Love. From these cases we see as in the Allegory of Wisdom, why woman as High Priestess embodies wisdom.
THE FOOL (0): The zeroth trump or Major Arcana card of Tarot decks, the Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or 'crazy wisdom'. On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand is a rose, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is seemingly unconcerned that he is standing on a precipice, apparently about to step off. The dog next to him may be barking and warning him of his impending fall. This raises the question "Is The Fool making a mistake, or is The Fool making a leap of faith?" Interpretations: The number 0 is a perfect significator for the Fool, as it can become anything when he reaches his destination as in the sense of "joker's wild". The Jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, notably in King Lear, the court jester is a character used for insight and advice on the part of the monarch, taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his King. Only as the lowliest member of the court can the jester be the King's most useful adviser. In the Lakota tribe, Heyóka play contrarians, jesters, and sacred clowns. They act both as a mirror and a teacher, using extreme behaviors to mirror others, thereby forcing them to examine their own doubts, fears, hatreds, and weaknesses. They are healers through laughter and awaken people to deeper meaning and concealed truth. The root of the word "fool" is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or that which contains air or breath. We had seen earlier how breath is linked to the human soul (Genesis 2.7). Zero is nothing, a lack of hard substance, and as such it may reflect a non-issue or lack of cohesiveness for the subject at hand. Since Sunyata (emptiness and the void) is cultivated in Buddhist practice to attain wisdom and inner peace, perhaps there is wisdom in the Fool's Tarot card designated as zero.

Beware of Keys to Gates of Wisdom—
Did not the Cumaean Sibyl guide Aeneas through the wrong door?

King Solomon (1011-931 B.C.) is credited for writing the Book of Proverbs which has 50 citations of "wisdom". It begins with "To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding" (Proverbs 1.2) and ends with "Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates." (Proverbs 31.31). Gates are associated with wisdom— "She [Wisdom] cries at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors." (Proverbs 8.3) and "Blessed is the man that hears me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors." (Proverbs 8.34). The Torii is a traditional Japanese gate found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine. Symbolically it marks the transition from profane to sacred space. At the entrance to Buddhist temples are two wrathful muscular guardians called Nio. The right statue is called Naraen Kongo with his mouth wide open, representing the Sanskrit "a", man's first vocalization. The left statue is called Misshaku Kongo with his mouth closed, representing the last vocalization "hum". These two characters symbolize the birth and death of all things. Men are born speaking the "a" sound with mouths open and die with an "hum" and mouths closed. Like the Alpha and Omega in Christianity, they signify "everything" or "all creation". The contraction of "a" and "hum" is "Aum", which is Sanskrit for Brahman or The Absolute.
    In Western tradition, the most famous gates appear at the end of Virgil's Aeneid VI.893-898 (19 B.C.)— Aeneas arrives at Cumae on his travels, and consults the Cumaean Sibyl to visit his deceased father in the Underworld. Guided by the Sibyl and holding the Golden Bough, a branch of mistletoe for protection, Aeneas meets the shade of his father Anchises. He shows the souls of Aeneas's yet unborn descendants to Virgil's time. He prophesizes Aeneas to be victorious in battles to become the founder of Rome. As Aeneas departs the Underworld, he comes to the twin gates: "There are twin Gates of Sleep, of which one is said to be of horn, allowing an easy exit for shadows which are true. The other is all of shining white ivory, perfectly made; but the Spirits send visions which are false in the light of day. And Anchises having said his say now escorted his son and the Sibyl with him on their way, and let him depart through the Gate of Ivory. Aeneas took a direct path along the shore to his ships and rejoined his comrades. Next he coasted along to Caieta's harbor. Anchors were cast from prows. Sterns stood along the beach." (translated by W.F. Jackson Knight, Virgil: The Aeneid, Penguin Books, 1958, p. 174). If the Cumaean Sibyl represents the wise priestess, why did she guide Aeneas through the Gate of Ivory, to the world of false dreams. Since Aeneas symbolizes the founding of Rome, is our Western civilization based on one of falsehood? In Greek, the word for "horn" means "fulfill", and the word for "ivory" means "deceive". On the basis of that play on words, true dreams come through the gates of horn, false dreams come through the gates of ivory. Scholars have wrestled with this conundrum, but none has provided a satisfactory answer. I favor Jorge Luis Borges's suggestion that Western civilization is not living in reality but falsehood. "For Virgil, the real world was possibly the Platonic world, the world of the archetypes. Aeneas passes through the gates of ivory because he enters the world of dreams— that is to say, what we call waking." [Borges, "Nightmares" from Seven Nights (1984)]. Hence the warning of this poem's last stanza— that if the wise Sibyl could lead the hero through the wrong door, we need to be ever vigilant in our course of action. Perhaps Buddha's last words will guide us well— "Be the lamp unto yourself." (Image Jan Brughel The Elder (1568-1625), [Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, (Aeneid VI.269-282), 1598]

                                                                        — Peter Y. Chou
                                                                            Mountain View, 3-25-2010

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