That Israeli op is not Brother’s Keeper, it’s Return, brothers!

[ By Charles Cameron — thanks to Gershom Gorenberg for clarifying this for me ]

Dalia Hatuqa, in a Foreign Policy piece titled Am I My Brother’s Keeper? and subtitled How the disappearance of three Israeli boys in the West Bank is upending Palestinian politics, wrote:

Since June 12, the Israeli army has killed at least four Palestinians and arrested more than 470 others in an operation dubbed Brother’s Keeper.

I was interested: Am I my brother’s keeper? is the question Cain asks about Abel in Genesis 4, after they have both offered sacrifices to God, and God had been pleased with Abel’s, and not so much with Cain’s:

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

This is the foundational text for murder in general, and fratricide in particular, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and also a key text for the notion of sacrifice, also central to both traditions. I don’t want to “read” it with twenty-first century Anglo-American eyes, and I’m no rabbinic scholar, so I won’t attempt to explain the whole narrative, but simply draw your attention to the fact that the name of the Israeli operation in that FP piece is Brother’s Keeper, which would make it a clear reference to Cain and Abel.


Meanwhile, Matt Levitt asked in a tweet:

Name the Passover reference used as code name for an Israeli op targeting Hamas $ 

— to which I responded, not realizing it was a different op he was talking about, “Brother’s Keeper”. The op in Matt’s question, which I’d have known if I’d followed the link he offered — to his own article Kidnapped Israeli Teens Compel Scrutiny of Hamas’s International Finances in the New Republic — was named Biur Hametz, and although intensified by the kidnappings, had nothing to do with Cain and Abel, being as Matt had suggested, a Pesach reference:

In fact, Israel has been quietly targeting Hamas’s financial infrastructure for some time now as part of Operation Biur Hametz. (The name refers to the pre-Passover custom of burning any leftover bread before the onset of the holiday.) Much of Israel’s focus the past few months has been on Hamas’s financing from abroad, but the kidnappings have thrust this campaign into full throttle.


In any case, I wondered how the Israeli forces interpreted the name of the exercise, which I still thought of as Brother’s Keeper, and asked my old colleague from the Center for Millennial Studies, Gershom Gorenberg:

When Israel names op “Brother’s Keeper” – Israel keeper of “brother” Palestine, or some1 unnamed keeper of 3 Israeli brothers?

Gershom very kindly corrected me:

Original is “Return, brothers” in imperative. Still no Cain/Abel reference.


So there you have it. We can forget Cain and Abel and Brother’s Keeper –the operation is named Return, brothers, or in Hebrew, Shuvu Ahim.

And every decent maze has its blind alleys!

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ISIS and the Mahdi, twice in one week

Two items came over my transom recently that I want to report to you, since they tie ISIS — happening now — and the Mahdi — a timeless figure whose apperance in time is eagerly awaited by some, feared by others, ignored by many, and entirely unheard of by yet a fourth group.



The “end times” writer Joel Richardson pointed myself and Tim Furnish to a recent “conversation” held (and videotaped) by Harun Yahya, aka Adnan Oktar, a Turkish writer on creationism, Mahdism and all points in between, in which he identifies ISIS entry into Syria as a clear, triple indicator of the imminent arrival of the Mahdi. Here’s my transcript, with Yahya in plain text and his interlocutors in italics:

(Hadith): Our Prophets (saas) told: “Black banners of Ibn Abbas appear from the East.” That is to say, among the Arabs those with black banners appear. After they proceed for a while, again this time a smaller group with black banners appear from the East (the Middle East). They fight against a man from the descend of Abu Sufyan and come under the obedience of Hazrat Mahdi.”

 Who is Sufyan?

 Assad. Hafez Assad. Notice that it is said “… fighting against someone from the descend of Sufyan”, see how clear it is, right? “They come under the obedience of Hazrat Mahdi.” At the end, they abide by Hazrat Mahdi (as). At the end, they abide by Hazrat Mahdi (as). Otherwise if that power were leaderless, that would devastate the world .. but because they will come under the obedience of Hazrat Mahdi (as), the problem would be settled.

First al-Qaida’s black flags appeared, the big black banners. Now, they are smaller, again from the East. “… this time small black banners appear and fighting against someone from the descend of Sufyan”, right now this is already happening, “… they come under the obedience of Hazrat Mahdi.” I said everything is related with Hazrat Mahdi (as), and they feigned ignorance about it.

(Hadith) [Another hadith] “Await for the reappearance of the awaited one on three occasions.” Notice that our prophet says, “Await for the reappearance of the awaited one on three occasions.” He was asked what those three occasions are:” “our Prophet (saas) replied: Syrians fight among themselves” This is the first one. There is a fight among the Syrians. Many groups in Syria can’t get along, they fight. “When black flags arrive” and “when there is terror and fear in the month of Ramadan” How many days let to the month of Ramadan now? So they are all true. Our Prophet (saas) tells the truth.

 (Hadith) “Related from Muhammad ibn Hanaffiya:” Muhammad ibn Hanaffiya is my grandfather as you know in the lineage. He is the son of Hazrat Ali. My lineage goes back to him. “Black flags will appear. Then another group of black banners with black caps and white dresses will appear.” As you may have noticed, they all have black caps. They wear black and their clothes are white but they have black caps. “They will defeat Sufyan’s friends.” Right now Sufyan has already been defeated. Syria is razed to the ground. “Ultimately they will arrive at Bayt Al-Muqaddas, and they will prepare the governance for Hazrat Mahdi (as).” Whatever our Prophet (saas) foretold, they all come true. 

Kirkuk came entirely under the grip of Peshmerga, Kurds are celebrating [this incident]. It seems that Iraq is being technically divided into three: Kurdistan, Sunni and Shia. 

 Our Prophet (saas) says that Iraq would be divided in the time of Hazrat Mahdi (as) .. as a portent of the appearance of Hazrat Mahdi (as). I wrote this 25 years ago in my book. That Iraq would be divided into three.

 Barack Obama said that he does not exclude any group in providing help to Iraq. In case any security concerns related to his country arise, they are ready for military intervention. The rooting of such a radical structure in Syria and Iraq is not in the favor of the USA. 

Obama must start explaining the issue of the system of the Mahdi. He should not wait until radicalism harms him. They always avoid it. What can they accomplish by avoidance? Radicalism is getting hold of them. 

What they mean by intervention is launching airstrikes. Not sending any troops there.

 Air strikes are what ISIS wants. Syria ruined its own country. ISIS also wants Iraq to ruin its own country. They want the devastation of buildings; that destruction already devastates the people in the spiritual sense. The people leave the city and they acquire a spirit of war. 

They assume Islam to be a cruel religion made up of ugly women and men … a religion ordering the chopping up of people, shooting them with machine guns as ISIS does, preventing people from going out, depriving them of their freedom. The mindset does not allow women to laugh, or to use perfume. They have devastated Islam with this mindset. We are trying to purge this scourge. We are cleansing what you ruin.

 Almighty God adorns Turkey day by day. The number of mosques are increasing.

The Islamic communities are expanding. But [first and foremost] Almighty God started to make us feel the existence of the system of Mahdi clearly. I said that radical Islam, that is the kind of Islam based on the hadith, would choke you and you won’t be able to cope with it. They did not care at all. They are now terrified. Radicalism is snowballing all over the world now. This scourge will end only by the system of the Mahdi.

The appearance of the ones with black banners is a portent and Hazrat Mahdi (as). In the hadith collections there are hundreds of hadith referring to them. The appearance of black banners, and they all come about as it is related.

 You can find the video here.



Let’s just say that that’s an eerie match for Tim Furnish’s post of a few days back on MahdiWatch site, The Hour of ISIS Power, which is far too long for me to quote in full but worthy of your attention. Here are the key paras, for my purposes here:

5) As if ISIS is not bad enough with its jihadism, there are disturbing hints of eschatological thinking and Mahdism among that group and its allies.  In a 2011 communique, al-Qa`ida in Iraq — the ISIS predecessor organization — referred to the Shi`i militia Jaysh al-Mahdi (“Army of the Mahdi”) as the “army of the Dajjal.” Al-Dajjal or more fully al-Masih al-Dajjal is “the Deceiving Messiah,” who comes before the end of time to combat the (Islamic) forces of the returned Muslim prophet Jesus and his ally, the Mahdi.  Perhaps AQI was merely invoking the Dajjal to mock Muqtada al-Sadr’s group;  if not, then AQI/ISIS would seem to have an eschatological bent. 

 This latter explanation is reinforced by the eschatological explanations offered just six months ago by the official spokesman for the Chechen contingent of ISIS in Syria: “Issa [Jesus] … will come down here, and al-Dajjal will come out here, it is the land of epics and the land of resurrection.”  ISIS’s rival Jabhat al-Nusra was even more overtly eschatological, openly invoking the primary End Times figure of Islam: the Mahdi.  For most, if not all, the Sunni groups fighting jihad in Syria and, now (again), Iraq, eschatology is a key motivator — in terms of enemies (“Safavids,” “army of the Dajjal”), motivation (preparing the way for the Mahdi’s coming) and goals (regional, then global caliphate as well as eventual conquest of al-Quds, Jersualem); ISIS is likely no exception to this world-view.   

Some thought Usama bin Ladin was the Mahdi (and, after he assumed room temperature, that he had become the Hidden Imam. No one has yet proclaimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the Mahdi — but if Islamic history is any guide, it’s just a matter of time. Once the caliphate is firmly established, then the likelihood of a Mahdiyah being proclaimed increases.  And as I noted in my book Holiest Wars, “Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.”

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Dialectic, or a waltz within revelation

[ by Charles Cameron — on three-fold movements in time in Islam, Christianity and Judaism – most recent post before Zenpundit was crashed ]


Joachim's Three 602
The three ages of Joachim of Fiore, in the latter's Venn-like diagram


The question of how Islam in its many varieties views other religions is a compelling one, and perhaps never more so than in our own times. Today I was informed that many of William Chittick‘s papers were available for download on, and the first couple I wanted to read were these:

  • The Theological roots of peace and war according to Islam
  • A Sufi Approach to Religious Diversity — Ibn al-Arabi on the Metaphysics of Revelation
  • While scrounging around the net for an easily quotable form of the second paper, I ran across Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, Universal Validity of Religions and the Issue of Takfir — and like a dutiful netizen, I stopped off to read a little, and ran across the gem I’d like to bring you this morning>


    Shaykh Faraz Rabbani offers a fascinating example of the dialectic three-step in the prophetic books of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (Tawrah, Injil and Qur’an), writing:

    A familiar example cited by ulama is the law of talion, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which was obligatory in the religious law of Moses (upon whom be peace), subsequently forbidden by the religious law of Jesus (upon whom be peace) in which “turning the other cheek” was obligatory; and finally both were superseded by the law of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), which permits victims to take retaliation (qisas) for purely intentional physical injuries, but in which it is religiously superior not to retaliate but forgive.


    In general, Christianity — having the Tanakh and New Testament for its scriptures — offers a binary or two-step process in place of this movement of the dialectic: the lex talionis is commanded in the Old Testament and rescinded in the New. Only in the work of Abbot Joachim of Fiore do we find a three-fold dispensation, in which the first term or “age of the Father” follows the many laws (mitzvot) of the Old Testament, the second follows Christ’s abridgement to include simply the two commandments of Matthew 22. 37-40:

    Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    And the third?

    Mirabile dictu, it is the age in which the presence of the Holy Spirit liberates us from all necessity of law. Gianni Vattimo, writing in After Christianity, expresses Joachim’s vision thus:

    Three are the stages of the world indicated by the sacred texts. The first is the stage in which we have lived under the law; the second is that in which we live under grace; the third is one in which we shall live in a more perfect state of grace. . . . The first passed in slavery; the second is characterized by filial slavery; the third wiII unfold in the name of freedom. The first is marked by awe, the second by faith, the third by charity. The first period regards the slaves; the second regards the sons; the third regards the friends. … The first stage is ascribed to the Father, who is the author of all things; the second to the Son, who has been esteemed worthy to share our mud; the third to the Holy Spirit, of which the apostle says “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

    The Archdruid’s Report discussed Augustinian and Joachimite views of the nature of time a while back, and while his entire post is worth your attention, here I would like to pick out this one paragraph:

    What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it—and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages — was that it was a story of progress. The Age of Love, as Joachim envisioned it, was a great improvement on the Age of Law, and the approaching Age of Liberty would be an improvement on the Age of Love; in the third age, he taught, the Church would wither away, and people would live together in perfect peace and harmony, with no need for political or religious institutions. To the church authorities of Joachim’s time, steeped in the Augustinian vision, all this was heresy; to the radicals of the age, it was manna from heaven, and nearly every revolutionary ideology in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries drew heavily on Joachimist ideas.

    Indeed, Norman Cohn in his classic Pursuit of the Millennium sees Joachim’s Third age in the Drittes or Tausendjähriges Reich (the Third or Thousand Year = Millennial Kingdom) of Nazism, and in Friedrich Engels’ notion of the “withering away of the State” — both great tolitarian systems of the last century thus being under the spell of Joachim’s apocalyptic notion of utopia.


    And Judaism?

    Judaism has its own developmental scheme, in which sacrificial Temple worship gives way to the synagogues, talmudic scholarship and the diaspora — yet always with the Pesach refrain:

    Next year in Jerusalem.

    Here too, it may be surmised, time moves to the music of the dialectic.

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    Pope Francis and the Double Gesture

    [ by Charles Cameron — noting the fluency in symbolism that marks the current Pontificate ]

    It’s no mistake that Pope Francis made the same gesture at two walls during his visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem yesterday.

    above:, Francis at the Wailing Wall; below: Francis at the Wall of Separation

    above:, Francis at the sacred Judaic “Wailing Wall”, upholding the Temple Mount, Jerusalem; below: Francis at the secular Israeli “Wall of Separation” between Israeli and Palestinian administrations

    As a priest, he’s trained in the symbolic, sacramental tradition of Catholicism — in which the ritual gestures of the priest bring together the past (at the Last Supper), the present (in each particular celebration of Mass) and the future / eternity (to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb) in the name of the one who said, bringing time and eternity together, “Before Abraham was, I am”.

    From Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis:

    every eucharistic celebration sacramentally accomplishes the eschatological gathering of the People of God. For us, the eucharistic banquet is a real foretaste of the final banquet foretold by the prophets (cf. Is 25:6-9) and described in the New Testament as “the marriage-feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7-9), to be celebrated in the joy of the communion of saints.

    In addition to this priestly gestural pulling together of different times into a heightened “synchronic” whole, however, Pope Francis is also a Jesuit, a man of canny wit and skilfull means, and he wishes us to see in his two parallel gestures a comparison and contrast, which we are to ponder.

    It would be all too easy to close out our ponderings with a quick analysis — by touching and praying at the “Separation Wall” he means to indicate he’s on the Palestinian side — and indeed his use of the words “Palestinian State” suggest that he is certainly not viewing the Israeli Palestinian issue from, let’s say, the exclusive viewpoint of a Netanyahu. Seen thus, and from a partisan perspective, this would make it easy for us to approve or disapprove his motives. But I believe that this would be to misjudge the man.

    He has also offered his hospitality — a virtue to which Christians are commanded, see I Peter 4.9 — to the two Presidents — again, a symbolic doubling:

    In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.

    The purpose of his hopitality, then — in his house within the Vatican, known for its simplicity compared with the Apostolic Palace his predecessors inhabited — is prayer: an opening up, not a closure. For peace to come, there must be a shift — inspiration, imagination, goodwill, concessions, hard lines erased and new, more equitable and agreeable arrangements found.

    It is war that tends to draw hard lines: peace softens them. Pope Francis speaks both symbolism and realism like a native.

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    Sunday surprise 23: a narrative form without conflict

    [ by Charles Cameron — a friend’s blogpost, a taste of still eating oranges — and the eyes of beautiful women considered as weaponry, in a Zen story, backed up by a verse from a celebrated Indian treatise on advaita ]


    I like to get cross-blog discussions going, so what I’ll post here as this week’s Sunday surprise is my response to two paragraphs my friend Bill Benzon quoted on his New Savanna blog under the title Is conflict necessary to plot? from a longer piece at Still Eating Oranges titled The significance of plot without conflict — followed by a zen tale.

    Here’s the Still Eating Oranges intro to the form known as kishōtenketsu which so intrigued Bill Benzon:

    The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general — arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

    Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc. — are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.

    And here, from Paul Reps’ celebrated little book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, is one of the 101 Zen Stories with which Reps’ anthology begins:

    How to Write a Chinese Poem:

    A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

    “The usual Chinese poem is four lines,” he explains. “The first line contains the initial phase; the second line, the continuation of that phase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

    Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
    The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
    A soldier may kill with his sword.
    But these girls slay men with their eyes.

    Which reminds me irresistibly — in the HipBone-Sembl manner — of a quote from Shankaracharya‘s classic work, Vivekachudamani, or The Crest Jewel of Discrimination:

    Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

    Wry grin: I am clearly no hero — but even here in Shankara’s aphorism, we are still and ever in the realm of narrative.

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    Lest we forget: Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Mahdi

    [ by Charles Cameron — another timely reminder of the Mahdist / “end times” strand in AQ affiliate JN ]. 


    Sami Al-‘Uraydi, senior Jabhat Al-Nusra religious authority, according to MEMRI’s account:

    Thanks to Allah, the banner has been raised. The first to raise this banner in this century was Sheik Osama, may Allah accept him in Paradise. The banner passes from on lion to another, from one man to another, until it will reach Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Mahdi. Allah wiling, the banner will not be lost, until it has reached Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Mahdi. The age of great wars began with the 9/11 attacks.


    It is only too easy for the secular western analytic and or decision-making mind to discount the religious content of AQ and related rhetoric, but even more dangerous to overlook the specifically apocalyptic element — in which expectation of the “soon coming” of the Mahdi is implicit — an element which facilitates what Richard Landes, leading world authority on millennialisms, terms “semiotic arousal”.

    Remember Tim Furnish‘s remark in the first para of Holiest Wars, which I’ve quoted here more than once?

    Islamic messianic insurrections are qualitatively different from mere fundamentalist ones such as bedevil the world today, despite their surface similarities. In fact, Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

    We’re not there yet — there has been as yet no successful Mahdi claimant — but the messianic meme is present among both Sunni and Shia fighters.


    A tip of the hat both to Joel Richardson and to MEMRI .

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    Of maps and territories

    [ by Charles Cameron — Lao Tzu with a quick boost from CS Lewis — Tao, Logos and a line of water can be traced across the face of North America ]

    The Tao of Korzybski

    The Tao of Korzybski

    I have long been an admirer of Lao Tzu, and in particular of the opening phrases of the Tao Te Ching, which Stephen Mitchell renders thus:

    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    Lao Tzu, of course, is working within a language that’s impressionistic enough to allow each word multiple resonant connotatations, and English translations of his work are correspondingly very many and varied, as we shall see.

    Ursula le Guin translates those same lines:

    The way you can go
    isn’t the real way.
    The name you can say
    isn’t the real name.

    We can phrase Lao Tzu’s opening lines simply thus:

    The way that can be described isn’t the Way:
    The name that can be pronounced isn’t the Name.

    As an aside, Le Guin lets the cat out of the bag a bout “true names” in her marvelous book, Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes:

    Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

    But it’s the Way rather than the Name — not that the two can be anything other than two ways to name the One — which concerns me here, because one of the first DoubleQuotes I’m consciously aware of formulating matched Lao Tzu’s:

    The way that can be described isn’t the Way

    with Alfred Korzybski‘s central insight in Science and Sanity:

    The map is not the territory.

    That’s what I was suggesting in the illustration I’ve put at the head of this post, which dates back to the early seventies, several decades before I began developing the HipBone Games, let alone the DoubleQuotes format I now use…


    All of which would be one of those treasures I keep stashed in my heart (“where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”) — except that the other day I stumbled on a CS Lewis quote that sheds considerable new light on Lao Tzu’s dictum:

    A CS Lewis quote, illustrated

    A CS Lewis quote, illustrated

    That CS Lewis quote comes from New Learning and New Ignorance, an essay Scott Shipman generously introduced me to the other day. It’s the Introduction to one of his works of literary-histporical criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama! And in his simple, elegant formulation —

    roads and small rivers could not be made visible in maps unless their width were exaggerated

    — we have an explanation of one way in which the map must indeed distort the territory if it is to be of any use, one way in which the Way cannot be shoehorned into words.


    Which brings us to the river whose width is exaggerated, just as Lewis said it would be, in the aerial photo of the continental US that I’ve placed in the DoubleQuote panel directly above the Lewis quote.

    It seems [t]his creek divides the US connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to quote the title of Jesus Diaz’ fascinating article from which that image comes:

    The Panama Canal is not the only water line connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There’s a place in Wyoming—deep in the Teton Wilderness Area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest—in which a creek splits in two. Like the canal, this creek connects the two oceans dividing North America in two parts. [ … ]

    The creek divides into two similar flows at a place called the Parting of the Waters … To the East, the creek flows “3,488 miles (5,613 km) to the Atlantic Ocean via Atlantic Creek and the Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.” To the West, it flows “1,353 miles (2,177 km) to the Pacific Ocean via Pacific Creek and the Snake and Columbia Rivers.”

    I’m not often impressed by matters of scale, but that hits my sweet spot. And it seems that fish don’t need to worry about the Panama canal and the political complexities attendant on it —

    it is thought that this was the pass that provided the immigration route for Cutthroat Trout to migrate from the Snake River (Pacific) to Yellowstone River (Atlantic) drainages.

    All of which fits nicely with the title of one of Alan Watts‘ books: Tao: the Watercourse Way


    In that book, incidentally, Watts — himself an Anglican priest as well as a long time Zen practitioner — has an interesting observation about the Tao:

    Weiger gives Tao the basic meaning “to go ahead.” One could also think of it as intelligent rhythm. Various translators have called it the Way, Reason, Providence, the Logos, and even God…

    Thomas Merton, in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, picks up the thread, telling us:

    Dr. Wu is not afraid to admit theat he brought Zen, Taoism and Confucianism with him into Christianity. In fact in his well-known Chinese translation of the New Testament he opens the Gospel of St. John with the words, “In the beginning was the Tao.”

    And here we’re back to CS Lewis, who wrote in a letter to Clyde Kirby, editor of A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis and author of The Christian World of C. S. Lewis:

    is not the Tao the Word Himself, considered from a particular point of view?

    There are times when a network of ideas is so close-woven as to form an intricate virtual conversationa, a bead game, even.


    Appendix: further readings

    You have been very kind to follow me thus far, but while I’m at it I’d like to drop in some readings for those who might like to engage in further exploration of Lao Tzu.

    175+ Translations of Chapter 1

    These include Wade-Giles & Pinyin Romanizations, plus translations and interpretations by, among others, John Chalmers (1868), James Legge (1891), D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus (1913), Aleister Crowley (1918), Dwight Goddard (1919), Arthur Waley (1934), John C.H. Wu (1939), Lin Yutang (1942), Witter Bynner (1944), D.C. Lau (1963, 1989), Wing-Tsit Chan (1963), Timothy Leary (1966), Peter A. Boodberg (1968), Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (1972), Stephen Mitchell (1988), Thomas Cleary (1991), Ursula K. Le Guin (1998), and Jonathan Star (2001)…

    Peter Boodberg’s Philological Notes on Chapter One of The Lao Tzu

    These are remarkable, if for no other reason than for giving us the phrase “Myriad Mottlings’ mother”. His versiom of the opening — in what he descibes as having “little literary merit” while reflecting “to the best of my ability, every significant etymological and grammatical feature, including every double entendre, that I have been able to discover in the original”. Boodberg’s whole paper is somewhat stunning — here are the two opening lines:

    Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forewonted lodehead;
    Namecall namecall-brooking : no forewonted namecall.

    Comments on the Tao Te Ching using the D.C. Lau translation (Penguin Books, 1963):

    Tao chapter 1

    Verse 1 [see Chinese text and literal translation]: “The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant way.” The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun: “Way” and “spoken of” (“said”) are the same character (Dào). So the first line says: “The Tao that can be tao-ed is not the constant Tao.” “The name that can be named…” Here the pun can be maintained in English, where “name” can be both noun and verb. The quality of a translation of the Tao Te Ching can usually be determined from the rendering of these lines. Those determined to unpack the meaning of Taoism in the translation, according to their own interpretation of Taoist doctrine, will often render these terse sentences into a paragraph, sometimes with irrecognizable renderings of the key words. The affection of a translator for Taoism cannot excuse a method that only obscures the nature of the text itself.


    Hey, I think of those first two verses of the Lao Tzu as a “pattern” in the Christopher Alexander sense, with Korzybski’s version and CS Lewis additional insight featuring as examplars of the more general principle. I thought I’d do a quick search and wind up with some of my own playful uses of those two phrases in different situations and for different audiences / readerships:

  • The pronounceable name isn’t the unpronounceable name.
  • The flow that can be capped isn’t the overflowing flow.
  • The quantity that can be counted is not the unaccountable quality.
  • The verbal formulation of x is not the x itself.
  • No way the way can be put into words.
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation.
  • The describable aint it.
  • More I grasp you, baby, more you disappear…
  • and not to put too fine a point on it…

  • the way that can be mapped is not the way to go, the meaning that can be put into words is not the final word
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