Notes to Poem:
Sculpting Uncarved Block

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Four streams inspired this poem— the first was Christian Luczanits's talk "The Tibetan Buddhist Mandala & Its Evolution" at Stanford on January 30, 2010. He showed the Kalacakra Mandala calling it the Ultimate Mandala, with five Buddhist Deities surrounding Buddha at the center. During the break, I went outside to bask in the Sun that broke through the clouds. Then the Sun whispered to me: "I am the Ultimate Mandala." When I asked "Where are your Deities?" The Sun let out a huge laughter: "All the planets circling me are Deities!" As I went through the planets from Mercury to Pluto, it dawned upon me that with the exception of Earth, the other eight planets were named after Roman and Greek deities. The second was Giacometti sculpture Walking Man I that sold for a record $104.3 million at London's Sotheby's on February 3, 2010. Seeing the thin man's legs in the shape of the Greek Lambda, Λ— which Plato called "Soul of the Universe"— I had an epiphany that the Soul is supporting our torso, and its shape appears in every step we take. It inspired two poems "Giacometti's Walking Man" and "Every Step You Make". I sent these poems to friends, and Nancy ended up on my Platonic Lambda hike page. Being an artist, she wrote about "French stonecarvers visiting stone quarries to order a stone just a little larger than the model to be sculpted. The artist tries to keep the mind in the Uncarved Block's simplicity." This triggered the third stream of Lao Tzu's Uncarved Block in Tao Te Ching (15, 28, 32, 37). The Chinese word Pu is translated as "uncarved block"— a state of pure potential, original simplicity, and primordial power that is ruined by human intervention. However, we see Taoist and Zen Masters paint or do calligraphy on a blank canvas or scroll, so are they ruining the original empty sheet of paper? Should that thin uncarved Carrara marble stained with rain be left in the courtyard for 25 years, remain as an uncarved block, or let Michelangelo sculpt it into David? The fourth stream was recalling Michael Maier's Emblema XII in Atalanta Fugiens, a rock tumbling out of the sky. Here's my uncarved block to shape a poem with. Thanks to the Planetary Deities, this poem was born.

Commentary to "Sculpting Uncarved Block"

The Uncarved Block tumbled out of nowhere—
"Rock falling from the sky" retouched detail from
Emblema XII of Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1617)
"Uncarved Block" from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, 37:

    The Tao never acts
    yet nothing is left undone.
    If rulers can hold fast to it,
    people will change naturally.
    Having changed, if desires rise again,
    I'll rid of them with the uncarved block.
    The nameless uncarved block
    is freedom from desires.
    Being desireless, it is tranquil,
    and the whole world will be at peace.

some say dark matter, black hole
In physical cosmology, dark energy explains recent observations that the universe appears to be expanding at an accelerating rate. In the standard model of cosmology, dark energy currently accounts for 74% of the total mass-energy of the universe. Dark matter does not interact with the electromagnetic force, but whose presence can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter. About 22% of our universe is thought to be composed of dark matter. Only about 4% of the total energy density in the universe can be seen directly. (NASA: Dark Energy & Dark Matter; Dark Energy Fills the Cosmos, Science, May 28, 1999). Black hole is a region of space from which nothing, including light, can escape. Image: Emblem 11 in Cosmos series (1619) of Robert Fludd (1574-1637) (Adam McLean).

white hole, worm hole—
In physics, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that is basically a 'shortcut' through space and time. Spacetime can be viewed as a 2D surface, and when 'folded' over, a wormhole bridge can be formed. A wormhole has at least two mouths which are connected to a single throat or tube. If the wormhole is traversable, matter can 'travel' from one mouth to the other by passing through the throat (White Holes & Wormholes). In astrophysics, a white hole is the theoretical time reversal of a black hole. While a black hole acts as a vacuum, sucking up any matter that crosses the event horizon, a white hole acts as a source that ejects matter from its event horizon.

all the heavenly deities tried their hands
Christian Luczanits gave a talk "The Tibetan Buddhist Mandala & Its Evolution" at Stanford History Corner, Rom 002 on January 30, 2010 from 1-4 pm. He showed the Kalacakra Mandala calling it the Ultimate Mandala, with five Buddhist Deities surrounding Buddha at the center. During the break, I went outside to bask in the Sun that broke through the clouds. Then the Sun whispered to me: "I am the Ultimate Mandala." When I asked "Where are your Deities?" The Sun let out a huge laughter: "All the planets circling me are Deities!" As I went through the planets from Mercury to Pluto, it dawned upon me that with the exception of Earth, the other eight planets were named after Roman and Greek deities. These planetary deities inspired me to write this poem on sculpting the Uncarved Block.

to tame this rugged rock
Rock image from Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1617)—
Emblema XII:
    The Stone that Saturn vomitted up after having
    devoured it in place of his son Jupiter has been
    placed on the Helicon as a souvenir for the mortals.
Epigramma XII:
    You want to know the reason why so many poets sing of the Helicon,
    And say that everybody must try to reach the top of it?
    At its summit a Stone has been placed as a souvenir,
    The Stone tat was devoured and spit out by Jupiter's father in his stead.
    If you take those words at their face value, you are out of your senses,
    For this Stone of Saturn is Chemical.

Gardening: Maitreya 3, Shambala, Berkeley & London, 1972, p. 64

Jupiter struck with thunderbolts
Jupiter was the king of the gods, and the god of sky and thunder in Roman mythology. He is the equivalent of Zeus in the Greek pantheon. Rhea gave birth to Zeus (Jupiter) in Crete, handing Cronus (Saturn) a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which he promptly swallowed. Then she hid Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete. Later, Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge the other children in reverse order of swallowing: first the stone, which was set down at Pytho under the glens of Parnassus to be a sign to mortal men, then the rest. Then Zeus released the brothers of Cronus, Gigantes, Hecatonchires and Cyclopes, who gave him thunder, thunderbolt and lightning. Image: Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), Fall of Phaeton (detail).

Saturn carved with his scythe
Saturn was god of Time and his weapon was a scythe. His Greek name was Cronus and son of Uranus. He ruled the gods before Jupiter. He is called Old Father Time. Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto were his children. They represented Air, Water, Death, that Time cannot kill. The Romans had a mid-winter festival Saturnalia in honour of Saturn. It lasted seven days around the time of Winter Solstice. Saturn was a god of agriculture and harvest. He held a sickle or scythe in his left hand and a bundle of wheat in his right hand. Saturn's scythe became a symbol of the grim reaper or death, hence in astrology Saturn is considered malefic. Image: "Saturn with his scythe" from

Mars slashed with his sword
Mars was the Roman god of war, the son of Juno and Jupiter, husband of Bellona, and the lover of Venus. He was the most prominent of the military gods that were worshipped by the Roman legions. The martial Romans considered him second in importance only to Jupiter. His festivals were held in March (named for him) and October. Initially Mars was a Roman god of fertility and vegetation and a protector of cattle, fields and boundaries and farmers. Mars later became associated with battle as the growing Roman Empire began to expand, and he came to be identified with the Greek god Ares. Mars is often depicted with a sword or spear, symbols for war.

Pluto dug caves with his mad dog
Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, (Latin, Tertius, Greek Hades). Pluto was one of the children devoured by Saturn (Cronus), along with Neptune. Jupiter was saved and hidden from Saturn by Rhea. Together, they represented earth, water, and air. After Saturn's defeat, the three brothers took control of the world, and divided it among them. Jupiter reigned the skies, Neptune, the seas, and Pluto, the underworld. Pluto had a three-headed dog Cerberus which guards the gates of Hades, to prevent those who have crossed the river Styx from ever escaping. Since Pluto found no bride to accompany him to his underworld kingdom, he abducted the Grain Goddess Demeter's daughter Persephone. Rape of Persephone has been told often in mythology and depicted in artworks. Demeter was so outraged that she created a drought and got Jupiter to convince Pluto in releasing Persephone to Demeter for one half of the year (Spring and Summer). Image: Pluto (Hades) with Cerberus, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

Venus caressed it with her kisses
Venus (meaning "love" or "sexual desire") was a major Roman goddess associated with love, beauty and fertility. She played a key role in many Roman religious festivals and myths. From 3rd century BC, the increasing Hellenization of Rome identified her as the same as the Greek goddess Aphrodite. According to Hesiod, she was born when Cronus (Saturn) cut off Ouranos' genitals and threw them into the sea, and from the aphros (sea foam) arose Aphrodite. Botticelli's painting Birth of Venus (1486) in Uffizi Gallery, Florence, shows Venus emerging from the sea on a seashell. Venus was the consort of Vulcan (Hephaestus), god of fire and smithery. However she was also the lover of Mars and Adonis, and mother of Cupid (Eros), god of erotic love and beauty. Image: Venus and Cupid (1566) woodcut by Titian & Nicolò Boldrini (Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand).

Neptune filled the valleys with rain
Neptune is the god of water and the sea in Roman mythology, a brother of Jupiter and Pluto. He is similar to the god Poseidon of Greek mythology. Neptune was also worshipped as a god of horses, under the name "Neptune Equester," patron of horse-racing. The planet Neptune was named after the god, as its deep blue gas clouds gave early astronomers the impression of great oceans. Neptune's astronomical symbol is a stylized version of the god Neptune's trident, a three-pronged spear. It is used for spear fishing and was formerly also a military weapon. The English alphabet "W" is in the shape to a trident. Also the letter "E" when placed on its base takes the shape of a trident. Neptune used the trident to create new bodies of water, cause earthquakes, to stir up tidal waves, tsunamis and sea storms. Rome's Trevi Fountain (1762) shows Neptune riding a chariot in the shape of a shell pulled by two sea horses.

Mercury waved his wingèd wand
In this poem's narrative, the uncarved block had been pummeled by the weapons of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Pluto, and was treated at last by kisses from Venus and Neptune's rain. Mercury's wand continues this process of healing. Mercury is a Roman god associated with the Greek Hermes, a celestial messenger, god of trade, commerce, and communication. In Greek myths, Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia. In Roman myths Mercury was the son of Jupiter and Rhea. Mercury had winged shoes talaria and a winged petasos. Mercury carried the wingèd caduceus, a herald's staff with two entwined snakes that Apollo exchanged for his lyre. His name is related to the Latin word merx (merchandise, merchant and commerce). Mercury's name appears in science— closest planet to the Sun is Mercury, and chemical element #80, Hg is Mercury also known as quicksilver. The word mercurial is commonly used to refer to something or someone erratic, volatile or unstable, derived from Mercury's swift flights from place to place. The term comes from astrology and describes the expected behavior of someone under the influence of the planet Mercury. Image: J.C. von Vanderbeeg, Saturnine Night in Manuductio Hermitico-Philosophia (Hof, 1739), from Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism, 1997, p. 204. (Colored version by Adam McLean). Detailed gloss on image in Levitation Themes in Art.

Urania played her lyre and all danced
When the planet Uranus was discovered on March 13, 1781 by William Hershel, he named it Georgium Sidus (George's Star) in honour of King George III. Bode, however, opted for Uranus, Latinized version of the Greek god of the sky, Ouranos. Bode argued that just as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, the new planet should be named after the father of Saturn. Uranus is the only planet derived from Greek rather than Roman mythology. Gustav Holst celebrates Uranus in his Planets Suite (1918) as "The Magician" instead of the god Uranus (Ouranos) of mythology who fathered Saturn (Cronus). Uranus imprisoned Gaia's children in Tartarus, deep within Earth. Gaia shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and gave it to her youngest child Cronus (Saturn), who ambushed his father and castrated him, casting his testicles into the sea. By the 6th century BC, Uranus (Ouranos) signifies purely the celestial sphere itself. Since Urania, goddess of music, song and dance, and Muse of Astronomy is the mother of the musician Linus, and often depicted with a sphere, I've opted for Urania the musician instead of Uranus the monster god in this poem. Another reason for selecting Urania is that Uranus is the 7th planet from the Sun. There are 7 strings on the lyre, 7 notes in the diatonic scaleDo-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si (C D E F G A B) for the goddess of music, song and dance. Image: Woodcut from Urania che sostiene l'Universo, Nuremberg, 1503 (Adam McLean).

at last the rock was made smooth
In Lao Tzu's 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. While "Sculpting Uncarved Block" relates the sculpting of planetary Earth by the heavenly deities of the Solar System, the poem is also a metaphor for sculpting ourselves. Let's listen to the sage Plotinus (204-270 AD) in The Enneads, I.6.9 (250 AD): "Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine... Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful." Image: Uncarved Block in United Nations Meditation Room.

to the music of the spheres
Music of the Spheres originated with the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (580-500 BC)— "There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacings of the spheres." Pythagoras taught his disciples meditation so they could hear music of the planetary spheres. Modern musicians have tried to capture this celestial harmony on records and CDs (BBC; Kepler; Harmony of the World CD). According to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the connection between sacred geometry, cosmology, astrology, harmonics, and music is through musica universalis. At the time, the Sun, Moon, and planets were thought to revolve around Earth in their proper spheres. The most thorough and imaginative description of the concept can be found in Dante's Divine Comedy. The spheres were thought to be related by the whole-number ratios of pure musical intervals, creating musical harmony. Kepler used music of the spheres in his Harmonice Mundi (1619), relating astrology (especially the astrological aspects) and harmonics. The three branches of the Medieval concept of musica were presented by Boethius (480-524) in his book De Musica (1492). Image: Woodcut of The Celestial Sphere by Erhard Schön, 1515 (Adam McLean).

to celebrate the birth of this planet which they called Earth
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters... And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good." (Genesis I.1-2, I.9-10). Image: P. Aquila, Imaines veteris ac Novi Testamenti a Raphele Sanctio, 1675 (Adam McLean). Raphael, "God Separates Land from the Waters" (1511), Loggia, Vatican Museum.

Afterthoughts on Alchemy:
The image Divine Mercurial Water (left) showing Mercury (Hermes) in the sea with caduceus and orb in his hands under the Sun and Moon and "Filius Noster" banner is symbolic of Alchemy. "Mercurial Water" is a solvent for spiritual transformation. The Sun & Moon above Mercury symbolize the opposites— Yang/Yin, Father/Mother, Male/Female, Day/Night, Light/Darkness. Mercury is in the middle, balanced between the opposite and transcending them in the Tao. Like Jesus baptised in the River Jordan and becoming Christ, Mercury is born anew in the spiritual water as "Filius Noster" or Filius philosophorum (Latin for "the philosophers' child", i.e. made by the true students of philosophy), a symbol in alchemy. In some texts it is equated with the philosopher's stone (lapis philosophorum). Other terms for the filius philosophorum include filius sapientiae ("child of wisdom"), infans noster ("our child") and infans solaris ("sun child"). Hermes is the child of the Red King and the White Queen (Sun and Moon). The Metal-Planet Affinities have been discussed in C.A. Burland's The Arts of the Alchemists, 1967, (pp. 5-6): Sun (gold, Au), Moon (silver, Ag), Mercury (quicksilver, Hg), Venus (copper, Cu), Mars (iron Fe), Jupiter (tin, Sn), Saturn (lead, Pb). There is also a connection between the Taoist Uncarved Block and the Alchemist's Philosopher's Stone. It's interesting that both Taoist and Western Alchemists have sought this elixir of immortality for ages. Those trying to convert lead into gold never found it, for this liquid gold is within us. While reading many of the alchemists' recipes, quicksilver was one of the common ingredients in them. Of course the ancients didn't know that quicksilver or Mercury has atomic number 80 (80 protons & 80 electrons, 121 neutrons) and Gold has atomic number 79 (79 protons & 79 electrons, 118 neutrons). I was in the chemistry laboratory at Cornell when this revelation hit me. Ah, Gold is already inside Mercury! With a nuclear accelerator, one can bombard Mercury to remove a proton, an electron, 3 neutrons to obtain Gold. Some have tried such transmutations and were successful, but radioisotopes would contaminate the gold produced. It then occurred to me that true Gold is the Pure Cosmic Consciousness within us. This is the Great Work of alchemical transformation. With continual inner work on ourselves, we find that the Philosopher's Stone is not a rare elixir buried in some remote caverns, but right here and now under our feet— our planet Earth. (Further Reading: Uncarved Block & Philosopher's Stone; Tea Alchemy; Uncarved Block of Ice; John Cage on Dove Bradshaw's Art). Image: The Divine Mercurial Water, by Baro Urbigerus, Besondere Chymische Schriften, Hamburg, 1795 from Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg in Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism, Taschen, Köln, 1997, p. 24. (Colored by Adam McLean from "Mercury emerging from the sea" in J.E. Muller, Wunder-Materie, 1707).

— Peter Y. Chou
    Mountain View, 2-16-2010

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