Notes to Poem: What Is Belief?

Peter Y. Chou,

Preface: On Wednesday, January 8, I went to Mark Doty's Stanford Poetry Workshop "The Occasions of Poetry". We read Whitman's poem #6 "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass (1855)— "A child said What is grass?" Whitman answers this question with many questions of his own— it's one of my favorite poems, but when Mark Doty discussed it in class, it opened up so many more vistas. Whitman asked lots of questions in this poem and Doty asked 7 of the 15 students in the class to email poems with questions in them by Sunday January 11. I realized that my poem "Four Wands Blown by the Wind" does have some questions in it. That's why when only 6 students volunteered, I also raised my hand. Later I realized that submitting my old 12/26 poem on "Four Wands Blown by the Wind" was not enough. I should be writing a new poem to challenge myself— so I decided to write on "What is Belief?" addressing some of the issues in Greg Reppen's 12/21 email and the two articles he sent on "Belief" from Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I also compiled interesting Quotes on Belief from Bartlett's Book of Quotations. On Sunday night from 1 am-6 am, I read Plato's "Theaetetus" (pp. 845-919) in my Plato's Dialogues translated by F.M. Cornford. This dialogue is about "What is knowledge?" and belief. I drank tea to keep awake while reading this interesting exchange between Socrates and young Theaetetus. When I got to Stanford's Art Library, I started "What Is Belief?" at 2:45 pm, and finished the poem around 6:45 pm. These Notes were left incomplete until I returned to them at the end of the year on December 31, 2009.

Commentary on poem "What Is Belief?"

A friend asked, What is belief? questioning my haiku:
    Believing is seeing—
    Kitty Hawk's a test of faith
    in man's first flight.

In honor of the 105th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, I emailed the above haiku to Greg Reppen on December 17, 2008. I met him at Foothill College in 2000 when he did a final project on the Wright Brothers for an HTML class. I was the Lab Consultant and helped him with HTML and suggested some web links.

belief in tooth fairies doesn't make them so
The Tooth Fairy is a mythical character depicted as a fairy that gives a child money or gifts in exchange for a baby tooth that has fallen out. Children usually put their tooth under a pillow at night. The fairy is said to take the tooth from under the pillow and replace it with money or candy once they have fallen asleep. A child normally has 20 baby teeth and starts losing them at around age 5 or 6, when they're starting school. Shedding teeth is a rites of passage for children. Belief in the Tooth Fairy is generally short-lived. Though the last baby teeth usually aren't lost till age 10 or 11, most children no longer believe by 7 or 8.

ceased to believe in Santa Claus when we're older
Santa Claus, Saint Nicolas, or Kris Kringle is a legendary figure who brings gifts to children at night on Christmas Eve, December 24. While Saint Nicolas wore bishop's robes originally, the modern Santa Claus is depicted as a jolly robust white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots. Saint Nicolas (270-346) was Nicolas of Myra, a bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He is known as Nicolas the Wonderworker due to the many miracles attributed to him. His secret gift-giving of putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, became the model for Santa Claus. Kris Kringle or Chriskind is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in Europe. In the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, playing Kris Kringle, convincing the skeptical 9-year old Susan (Natalie Wood) that Santa Claus is real if you really believe in miracles. Upon receiving his Oscar, he said "Now I know there is a Santa Claus!" A letter by 8-year old Virginia O'Hanlon to the editor of The New York Sun resulted in the classic September 21, 1897 editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus"

What about the connection between trust and belief,
investors losing their life-savings in Ponzi schemes?

The first version of this poem (1-11-2009)
was a direct quote from Greg Reppen's 12/21 email—
    What about the relationship between trust and belief,
    those believer-investors in Enron and Bernard Madoff,
    the deception of the sub-prime loan debacle and
    Wall Street meltdowns? Whom should we trust?

Critiques from the class said that "Enron", "Bernard Madoff", and "sub-prime loan debacle" are hot news at present but would be outdated in the future. So I put them all under "Ponzi schemes", a term that is defined by Webster as "an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones in order to encourage more and bigger risks. It was named after Charles A. Ponzi (1882-1949), an Italian who swindled millions in Boston around 1920. Donald H. Dunn's Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons (1975) is a biography of this legendary swindler.

Buddha's last words "Be the lamp unto yourself"
According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon, at the age of 80, Buddha announced that he would soon enter Parinirvana or the final deathless state leaving his earthly body. When Buddha reached the city of Kushinagara, he asked his disciples to spread a couch for him in a grove. He lay there, reclining on his right side, facing west, with his head supported by his hand. Buddha's last words were "All composite things pass away. Perfect your practice with diligence."
Buddha's Last Words
"Be the lamp unto yourself. Seek shelter of your own conscience.
Do not seek shelter of others. Listen to your own inner voice,
Life is short, do not waste it. Use it with great care."
"Be the lamp unto yourself; personally examine and verify
by experience anything that a guru may tell you."
How To Recognize Enlightenment
The historical Buddha left us the simple, sincere message:
"Be the lamp unto yourself; personally examine and verify
by experience anything that a guru may tell you."

Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for self-reliance
Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" appeared in his Essays: First Series (1841). Some gems from this essay: "My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects." * "What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?" * "let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause... for God is here within." * "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." * "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." * "I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching." * "Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,— means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour."

The BBC asked Carl Jung if he believed in God,
and he replied: "I don't believe. I know."

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who diverged from Freud's ideas of psychoanalysis. His autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) details the break with his mentor. In 1959, Jung agreed to be interviewed by John Freeman for a BBC series about famous living people, called "Face to Face". I recall watching this interview that was screened in Boston (circa 1971) and remember vividly the beginning. The interviewer asked Jung whether he believed in God. Jung puffed on his pipe what seemed to be a long minute and then said: "I don't believe, I know"— It aroused a buzz in the room as well as a storm of comment at the time. As I was embarking on a spiritual path to enlightenment, Jung's reply had a huge impact on my psyche. I realized that it is not enough to believe in the teachings of Buddha, Christ, and the sages, one needs to experience enlightenment first hand with knowledge. Thanks to the sages I've met since then, I feel blessed in living a joyous life where wonder and wisdom embrace me every day. Sara Corbett's article "The Holy Grail of the Unconscious" (New York Times, September 20, 2009) gives an account of Jung's "Red Book" on man's search for the soul.

Those who believe only in things they can see
do not realize the importance of the invisible
as roots and saps of trees, the air we breathe,

In Plato's "Theaetetus", Socrates contrasts the businessman with the wise man (175b-e): "Beside the businessman, the wise man appears often very poor. The businessman believes only in what he can hold in his hands; the invisible is nonexistent to him. He does not know what life is, that truly to live in is to strive to become like God as far as that is possible." The invisible supports the visible as the unseen nourishes the seen. We see a beautiful tree or flower, but it is the invisible roots beneath the ground that supports them. We see humans and animals in motion, but it is the invisible oxygen and air we breathe that gives us life. We stand on a solid earth, but it is the invisible gravitational force that binds it to the sun as planets revolve around the solar sphere which carries us around the spiral Milky Way galaxy. In Antoine Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince (1943), our Prince befriends a Fox who gives him a precious parting gift (Chapter 21)— "Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." "What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

Bernoulli's principle supporting planes in flight
Bernoulli's principle states that for an inviscid flow, an increase in the speed of the fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid's potential energy. Bernoulli's principle is named after the Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) who published his principle in his book Hydrodynamica (1738). An important concept in the study of aerodynamics concerns the idea of streamlines. A streamline is a path traced out by a massless particle as it moves with the flow. It is easiest to visualize a streamline if we move along with the body (as opposed to moving with the flow). The figure above shows the computed streamlines around an airfoil. We marvel at an airplane flying in the sky, not being aware of the invisible laws of physics such as Bernoulli's principle that keeps such a heavy metallic object aloft.

My first spiritual mentor Anthony told me
that his wife thought him crazy because
he saw fairies in his bed of roses

I met Anthony Damini on April 5, 1968 when I was at Cornell working on my doctorate in chemistry. Anthony was the proprietor of American Brahman, a used bookstore at 118 West State Street in downtown Ithaca. He would give free weekly seminars in his store that attracted some dozen Cornell students and two math professors. Anthony used Paul Brunton's Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and Wisdom of the Overself as texts in epistemology and metaphysics. But he would quote profusely from Plato, the Neoplatonists, Sufi and Zen Masters, Chinese and Hindu sages, in teaching us the perennial philosophy of spiritual enlightenment. When Anthony told me that he saw fairies in his bed of roses, I thought like his wife that he might be a little crazy. Only much later, did I realize that Anthony was my first spiritual mentor and that elves and fairies may be visible to those with psychic abilities. In a radio interview on "Nature People" (12-27-2008), psychic mediums Christopher Valentine and Dr. Christian von Lahr talked about seeing gnomes, elves, fairies, and leprechauns.

Dalai Lama considers him "one of my closest spiritual brothers."
This quote is from Larson Publications 1994 Catalog and used as epigraph to my poem "The Dalai Lama at Stanford". After the Dalai Lama's talk at Stanford's Memorial Church (4-19-1994), he autographed his book when I invoked the name of "Anthony Damiani" as he passed by.

What is the distance between belief and knowledge?—
is it the lapse of time between seed and fruit?

While there is a time lapse of growth between the acorn becoming an oak tree, and for the caterpillar to transform via the chrysalis into a butterfly, there is no need for belief for the knowledge to fructify in the case of the acorn or caterpillar. The oak and butterfly are in their innate nature to manifest themselves with time. The spiritual aspirant who goes on pilgrimages searching for gurus to be enlightened is like the wave in the ocean searching for the Kingdom of Water, not realizing that H2O is its essential nature. Christ told the Pharisees (Luke XVII.20-21): "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." After reading Aristotle's Metaphysics (1072b): "In the beginning is not the seed, but the perfect" I realized that we are not like a seed growing into perfection, but are perfect in Being— perfect at birth as a baby, teenager, youth, middle-age, old-age, and death. Socrates says in Theatetus (176c-e): "In the divine, there is only the perfection of righteousness... The wise man dwells in divine happiness, the others in godless misery living a life of folly." (Seed to Fruit)

Theaetetus says knowledge is perception and true belief,
but Socrates says "you know what you do not know"

In Plato's dialogue "Theaetetus", Socrates discusses what knowledge is with Theodoras, an old mathematician and his young pupil Theaetetus. To Socrates, virtue was knowledge. To be wise was to be good. No definition of knowledge is reached. When Theaetetus says "true belief is knowledge" (200e), Socrates says orators and lawyers use their skill and make people believe whatever they want them to believe, so true belief is not knowledge (201b). Knowledge is neither sense perception nor true belief with a rational explanation. Socrates concludes "you know what you do not know" (210d). Image: David's Death of Socrates (1787)

Can science explain the potency of placebos—
patients giving sugar pills that healed their illness?

Placebo (Latin: "I shall please") is an inert or innocuous substance (sugar pill) used especially in controlled experiments testing the efficacy of a real drug medication. The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health or behavior not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been adminstered. Since the publication of Henry K. Beecher's The Powerful Placebo (1955), the phenomenon has been considered to have clinically important effects. Ronald Eccles writes in Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (2006) that "placebo effects are a scientific mystery." Perhaps patients given placebos unknownst to them believe that these "inert drugs" will heal them that they trigger the release of endorphins or neurotransmitters in their brains that alleviate their ailments and pain.

Or miracles of Lourdes where countless cripples gave up
their crutches, even those with no belief in God?

Lourdes is a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in south-western France. It is famous for the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes that are reported to have occurred in 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879). After her death, Bernadette's body reportedly remained incorrupt, and the shrine at Lourdes went on to become a major site for pilgrimage, attracting millions of Catholics each year. On December 8, 1933, she was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Today Lourdes has a population of around 15,000 but is able to take in some 5,000,000 pilgrims and tourists every season. The 1912 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) wrote a book Man the Unknown (1935) about setting up a clinic at Lourdes. He examined patients before and after their Lourdes pilgrimage from X-rays and blood tests. To his amazement, many had healings faster than anything recorded in medical annals. Even those who were not religious benefitted from the massive prayers at Lourdes. Image: Grotto Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The power of belief is our mind's miracle—
Claude M. Bristol (1891-1951) published The Magic of Believing in 1948 which sold over a million copies, and is widely regarded as a prosperity classic. Bristol adhered to William James' statement that "Belief creates its verification in fact." Positive thoughts lead to favorable events in one's life. Quotes from book— Determination: "It's the constant and determined effort that breaks down all resistance and sweeps away all obstacles." * Desire: "One essential to success is that your desire be an all obsessing one, your thoughts and aims be co-ordinated, and your energy be concentrated and applied without letup." * Expectation: "We usually get what we anticipate." * Dreams: "You have to think big to be big" A memorable story in this book is about a firefighter who escaped injuries on duty when others died under collapsing buildings. He visualizes a circle of light protecting him when entering a flaming building. That's what kept him safe after decades on his perilous job. Read this book at Cornell (circa 1967) when I also read Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901) on enlightenment. Didn't know that Claude Bristol also read Bucke and had a cosmic illumination experience of "brilliant white light" until now while reading Claude Bristol's biography "How I came to tap the power of belief".

inspiring Dante's journey to paradise
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321),
Paradiso, I.91-105 (1300 A.D.)

Beatrice tells Dante about lightness of being:
    You are not on the earth as you believe;
    but lightning, flying from its own abode,
    is less swift than you are, returning home.

With these words and her smile, Dante began
to levitate and fly with Beatrice through the
celestial spheres until they reached paradise.

Botticelli's Dante's Paradiso I: Ascent to Heaven (1495)

Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright Brothers. The plane traveled 120 ft (36.6 m) in 12 seconds at 10:35 a.m., December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright was at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright ran alongside to balance the machine, and just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing in the photo. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. This was considered "the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air, powered flight" by the Fédération Aéronautique.

Apollo astronauts landing on the moon.
The Moon has always inspired man to fly. On May 25, 1961 before a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Finally, on July 20, 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. with Michael Collins piloting Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The 10¢ U.S. airmail stamp was issued on Sept. 9, 1969 to commemorate "First Man on the Moon". Twelve Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon and walked on its surface— Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin (July 20, 1969), Pete Conrad & Alan Bean (Apollo 12, Nov. 19-20, 1969), Alan Shepard & Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14, Feb. 5-6, 1971), David Scott & James Irwin (Apollo 16, July 31-Aug. 2, 1971), John W. Young & Charles Duke (Apollo 16, April 21-23, 1972), Eugene Cernan & Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17, Dec. 11-14, 1972). Moonlanding Video

The Queen tells Alice "Why, sometimes I've believed
as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

This quote is from Lewis Carroll's sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), found in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), Chapter V: "Wool and Water"—
'I ca'n't believe that!' said Alice.
'Ca'n't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone.
'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said
'one can't believe impossible things.'
'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen.
'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.
Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'

(See Life 2.0— How big dare you dream?)

Brenda Hillman believes stuffed animals have feelings,
a found pen brings good poems, and there's no free will.

In her craft lecture at Squaw Valley Community of Writers (July 10, 1989), Brenda Hillman told poets to write about their beliefs. She said that upon awakening in bed, she'd enumerate her beliefs that "stuffed animals have feelings. If I find a pen, I'd pick it up for writing as it will bring good poems, and that there's no free will." Inspired by her remarks, I wrote two poems soon afterwards on "Free Will Is Not So Free" (Brenda's Poetry Workshop, 7-11-1989) and "Fate Versus Free Will" (Robert Hass's Poetry Workshop, 7-12-1989). I mention this story because Mark Doty mentioned in class (blog) that he became friends with Brenda around 1970 in a creative writing class at Rincoh High School in Tucson, Arizona. I met Brenda at Squaw Valley in 1989, and now 20 years later, I meet Mark Doty in 2009 at Stanford— two wonderful poets inspiring my poems.

Do you believe that the Empire State Building
could fall in love with something 2000 times
smaller than it like a basketball?— No?
The proton did with the electron, a marriage
that has lasted as long as this universe,
almost 14 billion years!

To appreciate the size differential of the proton to the electron,
it is as if a giant like the Empire State Building asked for a bride
the size of a basketball to marry him. Let's do some calculations:
The Empire State Building rises to 1,250 feet (381 meters)
at the 102nd floor (Wikipedia).
A standard basketball used in the NBA
is 29.5 inches in circumference (Wikipedia).
Since Circumference = πD = 3.1416 x Diameter,
Diameter or height of a basketball is 9.39 inch = 0.78 feet.
(Empire State Building / Basketball) = 1250 ft / 0.78 ft = 1689.
So the Empire State Building is 1689 times taller than a Basketball. This is roughly the same ratio of the Proton size to the Electron. Note: The photos are not scaled to right size. As shown, the Empire State Building is only 26.7 times larger than the basketball. Age of the universe is the time elapsed between the Big Bang and the present day. Current theory and observations suggest that the universe is between 13.5 and 14 billion years old. This image was used in an earlier poem "In My Dream the Great One Married Me" in Robert Bly's class (April 16, 2008).

I believe this is the greatest love story. Heaven forbid if they
should part, and lucky are we they stayed together.

After reading Whitman's poem #6 "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass (1855)— "A child said What is grass?", Doty asked the class to write poems with questions in them since Whitman had five questions in this poem. so I composed seven questions in "What Is Belief?" Because Whitman ended his poem with "All goes onward and outward... and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier", I concluded my poem with "Heaven forbid if they / should part, and lucky are we they stayed together." The proton's marriage to the electron near the creation of our universe after the Big Bang when matter exploded in an expanding universe mirrors Whitman's description of "All goes onward and outward". And that the proton and electron stayed together for 14 billion years fits Whitman's "and nothing collapses". That's why we are so lucky anticipates the first line of Whitman's poem #7: "Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?"

                                                                      — Peter Y. Chou
                                                                           Mountain View, 12-31-2009

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (12-31-2009)