Tuesday, October 13, 2020

That’s Not the Shape of my Ark

Quite frankly I resent
people who give vent 
to their loquacity by extraneous bombastic circumlocution.

—Monty Python

I’m not suggesting there was a lot of talking around the point, let alone expressions of the egregiously self-aggrandizing types that would deserve the label of bombast, but not so many months ago I returned home thoroughly hungover after a stiff weeklong dose of academic papers, and thought to myself, ‘Never again.’ True, there were a few more bows to French brainiacs Foucault & Co. than has been usual in these gatherings in the past, but many of us were young and in Paris after all, so it ought to be excused just this once. It’s only that it was all so overwhelming for my more easily tired mind and body now that I’m supposed to be retired. A week was far too short to fit in so many papers of such sterling qualities. One mind is not enough to take it all in, and really, just one of those 600 papers was enough to touch off this foray into the realm of possible knowables.

Letter mysticism arises out of the needs of people who have life-long concentrated devotion to the written scriptures of their religion. It gets further compounded with the needs of exegetes, who after much labor and disputation find meaning in every jot and tittle. Their deep, wide-ranging and hyper-vigilant scriptural interpretation in itself becomes high art and extreme sport rolled into one. Sometimes we have to stand back and look on in awe.

So let’s eschew circumlocutions as well as bombast and other obscure words and get straight to the point I want to make, which is: The first letter of every Buddhist scripture is the e in the Sanskrit word evaThat means thus or just so. This connects in a remarkably direct and unexpected way with the letter e used in some ancient Mesopotamian sources. Read and observe and then if you feel so inclined, reflect.

‘Albatross!’ you might be thinking... Well, if so, fine with me. I’ll volunteer to wear it around my neck for the duration of this brief blogging voyage until I can bring you around. Well no, it’s no violation of my vow. That was not an obscure, let alone pedantic word to the Pythonists out there. I know who you are, and I know you know your way around an allusion.

It may not be sufficiently recognized by the world at large that Buddhism is a religion of the book every bit as as much as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One relatively minor difference is that Buddhists have a lot more books of the scriptural types that they can aim their devotion towards. If I could be so bold I would like to put forward my presuppositions, as a person who has spent his whole life thinking and acting in and among several religions (and not just studying them in school, although I did that, too). I assume that every religion with an esoteric dimension achieved it through deepened devotional practices and prayer. That goes especially for Islam and its Sufi schools, for Judaism and its Kabbalah, and for Mahâyâna Buddhism and its Vajrayâna.* Evolution out of Buddhism’s own inner fabrics explains much more about Vajrayâna than anything outside. For now let’s narrow down to something more manageable and agree to stay, more or less, within the bounds of two religions: Judaism and Buddhism.
(*I know I left off Christianity, Hinduism and Daoism, among other classical religions, but identifying a single discrete esoteric trend for each of these or for each of their sub-groupings is a little more problematic. I'd say for Hinduism, it would be some combination of yoga and Vedanta metaphysics [or tantra, if I can invoke that problem word], while for Christianity I'll go with the kind of spiritual alchemy often known as hermeticism and/or masonic temple mysticism and/or perhaps the grail traditions and related eucharistic mysteries. The unusual thing about Kabbalah and Vajrayâna is that they have, in some major sections of their religions, approached or achieved mainstream status. We could say that at least one of its aspects is flowing in every vein. Esoteric trends in other religions are more likely to be pushed and kept off center, in a side-stream at best. It might be argued we ought to talk about and include Christianity because it shares some of the same scriptures with Judaism. But I’m a little concerned about so-called “Christian kabbalah” that has for centuries used letter mysticism as a covert tool to undermine Judaism by, for instance, locating an encoded Jesus in the first words of the Tanakh, the very part that concern us here. A look at the internet in search of interpretations of the first words of Bereshit finds that English-language sites are almost entirely dominated by the idea that the first letters of Genesis somehow, through some form of gematria, justify Jesus as the Messiah. And these are not New Age or occultist sites, but oddly enough largely Evangelical Christian. By their own lights, they are the last people who ought to be dabbling in such mystic arts. It seems they believe that people must by all means be converted from their errors, even if it means making use of those errors... A kind of skilful means, if we are allowed to put a kinder spin on it.)

Read closely and with care this passage from the late 13th-century Long Deyu history:

The substance of Dharma in the sense of scriptural authority is like this. The natures of method and insight are symbolized by the two letters.[1] The word scriptural authority used here forms a member of the triad of scriptural authority, reasoning, and practical guidance. One scriptural authority, the Questions of Devendra Sūtra, says,  
The Dharma aggregates adding up
to eighty-four thousand correctly teach
that the universal basis, the parents,
cause, and substance as well,
are identical to the two letters, 
meaning the E and the Vaṃ.
The letter E serves as the mother,
while the Vaṃ serves as the father.
The bindu dot is known to mean the union of the two.
This union is such an amazing thing...[2]  
The E and the Vaṃ, the two together, are posited as the cause of the Dharma or, alternatively, its substance. In terms of reasoning, all visuals and audials have arisen through the paired nature of method and insight. Here, too, the vowels and consonants are the source of the 84,000 Dharma aggregates and so on, so it is reasonable that the substance of vowels and consonants would be identical to the Evaṃ. In terms of practical directions, there are two types of Evaṃ, the Evaṃ of sound being the one that is simply pronounced and the Evaṃ of form being the one that is written. The spoken sound is in Indian language evaṃ maya.[3] When translated into Tibetan it turns into ’di skad bdag gis. This comes at the head of all sūtras and tantras, and from it emerged their actual texts. 
In its written shape, the E is a triangle that stands for insight and void. It symbolizes the womb, the bhaga, of the mother. The Vaṃ is round. It corresponds to method and compassion, so it symbolizes the bulge of the vajra of the father. Just as seed or offspring emerge from the union of these two, all Dharma emerges from the union of method and insight. “The substance of Dharma is condensed in the two different letters.”[4] 
Now that we've heard this testimony on the scriptural grounding for Tibetan Buddhist letter mysticism, let’s agree to shift to another part of the world, and an age a few centuries short of 4,000 years ago. Written in the Semitic tongue of southern Iraq we know as Akkadian, is a small palm-sized tablet of clay with many lines of writing made up of wedge-shaped lines. It isn’t our only cuneiform source for the story of the world Flood best known to the world in the book of Genesis, the story of Noah. In the Ark Tablet, it isn’t Noah, but Atra-hasis in the role of main hero. And this, very likely our oldest source of the story, much older than Genesis, surprises us with new and unexpected information that the Ark was, by divine fiat, made on a round plan, a kind of very large coracle boat,* such as have been used in Iraq until modern times, made with woven reeds and pitch. That at least partially rectangular plan of the gopher-wood ark seen in millennia of European art has been so thoroughly engrained, we are practically unable to imagine it otherwise.

(*Tibet, too, used what we call coracle boats (in Tibetan, ko-gru), but with rounded rectangular shape and made with skin stretched over frames. So we see how that single English word can be used for very different kinds of boats. Finkel made a great video about a project carried out in India, in which a round ark was actually constructed to demonstrate its possibility. I’ll give you the link to it if I don't forget.)

Let’s get to the point I want to make. When the Mesopotamian pre-Noah was commanded by his god: “Destroy your house, build a boat!”* the word here used for house in Sumerian is “É,” while its equivalent word in Akkadian, showing its Semitic family connections, is bītam (Hebrew bayit, Arabic beit).

(*See Finkel's book, p. 107, for the context.)


So let me summarize this strange but true fact, a connection that, even if it may prove inexplicable, is yet undeniably there to be explained one way or another. A very ancient Mesopotamian word for house is e. The Hebrew Bible's creation account begins with ‘B’, the letter known by the name beth, which after all means ‘in’ and is interpreted by kabbalists as meaning bayit, or house. One may well wonder, and indeed there are many marvelous discussions, why the first letter of scripture and its creation account has to be the 2nd letter of the alphabet, rather than aleph, the first.

Hold that information in your mind as we leave the early Middle East (and North Africa and Andalusia) behind and head off to India. Here we see that the first syllable of practically all Buddhist scriptures is the letter e in evaThis letter comes to mean the place where an enlightened Teacher teaches Dharma, or to put it a different way it's the complete array of dharmas, all possible knowables, that gives the Enlightened One a suitably enlightened context. The and the va, the Place and the Teacher, is central to a lot of Vajrayâna meditation practices, and related physical-metaphysical speculations. (Place after all represents both environment and space, while Time is yet another of the five Perfect Unities — ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་ལྔ་)

It may not be surprising to find general resemblances between the so-designated ‘religions of the book,’ the Abrahamic religions, in their letter mysticisms. After all, they do grow out of the scriptural resources in part held in common. But to find such close correspondences between Genesis and Tibetan Buddhist exegesis around the meanings of the initial letter of their respective scriptures representing a dwelling place is something that is bound to continue to astound anyone paying attention. It’s there, deal with it. Go find you own ways to account for it. Something that makes sense to you. No reason to passively hope for somebody else’s ready-made answer, is there?

But allow me to throw some of my own thoughts out there in one final paragraph: The geometry of it — whether it’s a circle, or a triangle, or interlocking triangles — and the particular type of architecture — whether it's a boat, a house, a temple, or a divine palace mandala — isn’t really what matters.* The cultural uses of the ‘E’ and ‘B’ syllables have in common their references to the Place where both family resemblances and distinctive qualities emerge. It’s about the classifications we make and transmit in our cultural institutions and enshrine in our languages, the building blocks of what we think we know when we make use of our sensory abilities, abilities made or developed to suit our human needs and desires. If anything, it is logical-constructionist rationality that is the epiphenomenon here. I’m not just playing a game or performing an academic exercise based in current theoretical trends. The academy is full of dreadful social pressures, it’s true, but I have nothing to gain or lose, and say what I really think in the best way I know how. I say throw out the borrowed thoughts, or as the Sufi saying goes, Throw away all the books! That’s why I no longer regard myself as an academic. I hardly ever identified as one. I probably never was a traditionalist of the kind that seeks ready-made eternal truths, I was always too skeptical for that. I don’t know what I am anymore. Still, I might be a perennial-ist in one way or another. I’ll get back with you when I get a better sense of it, maybe after the shrill polemics have died down sometime in 2021. I might also be a snowflake or a social justice advocate. So what’s it to you if I am? Categories, categories... those constantly clashing and reactive categories!
(*It may be significant that some kind of structure capable of weathering the elements be put in place, so I wouldn’t say that the art of architecture isn’t implicated in all of this...)

[1] As we find clarified somewhat in the quote that follows, the two letters here are the syllables E and Vaṃ of the word Evaṃ that opens practically every Buddhist scriptural text. Some see them as not in themselves Buddha Word, but the words of the scripture reciters, the Dharmabhāṇaka, or Chos Smra-ba-po, who thereby guarantee the ultimate source of the words they had memorized. These opening syllables have been the subject of a very rich traditional vein of symbolic commentary, in part likely based on the shapes of the letters in an Indic script from older times when they actually appeared rather like two triangles, one pointing downward and the other upward (see Kölver). Placed one on top of the other they would then form what is commonly known as a Seal of Solomon, in Buddhist contexts known as the Dharma Origin. The two syllables are said to give birth to the Dharma and dharmas.

[2] Not to insist on this subtle point too strongly, but here we have the two polarities joining into a couple and not necessarily or explicitly becoming an androgyne in line with Platonic or Eliadeian conceptions. This Questions of Devendra (Devendraparipṛcchā Sūtra) is actually a tantra, as we ought to know from the content of the quotation itself. Although a larger passage that includes our quotation existed in Sanskrit, nothing seems to be known about the Sūtra’s current existence in that language, and it appears it was never translated into Tibetan. For a discussion on this point, see Wayman, Yoga of the Guhyasamāja, pp. 181-182, where the entire surviving passage from the scripture is supplied in Sanskrit and translated into English. Part of our quote has been translated, together with parallel ideas found in yet other tantras, in Dasgupta, Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, p. 110.

[3] Our text supplies no length marks here, but the correct reading ought to be mayā, meaning by me, although in some etymological speculations it is interpreted to mean māyā, or illusion.

[4] I believe this is a line from The Text, the lines of poetry to which the Deyu is a commentary. Its reading in the small Lde’u, p. 53, looks like this: ngo bo bsdud pas yi ge rnam pa gnyis.


• I must apologize for an anachronism here and there. Bear in mind that this blog was incubating in the drafts folder for over a year. Go ahead, if you can, and imagine anyone in the world going to a conference not skyped or zoomed here in the year 2020! I have to say, I had bigger hopes for this blog than what you see here. I have long loved and cherished the relative freedom of expression afforded by the blog genre. Blogs were originally meant to be personal weblogs, a kind of diary written up for friends and family. Be that as it may... everyone, myself included, curates their own truth by deciding what goes on display. And they do it on the basis of what they think other people, their potential readers, would like to see. Unfiltered honesty is a genuine challenge. Try it and you will know that it is true.


I’m not sure if this particular blog entry fulfills its promise, it doesn’t go far enough to communicate what I was aiming for, it doesn’t quite put the pieces together into a coherent picture, so it doesn’t show me in my best light. I put it out there anyway — nothing ventured nothing gained — thinking it could provoke one or two of my friends to reflect further and come up with more interesting and intellectually satisfying ideas. If that works, it’s enough, I suppose. And it’s alright if it’s not all right.


The frontispiece is a detail from an early 13th-century wall mosaic of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice. For more context, try this link

Simchat Torah and the Tibetan holiday of  Ongkor (འོང་སྐོར་) have more striking structural parallels that I may go into another time. They do similar things with scriptures at similarly harvest-related events in the autumn.

For the Bibliophage — Readings on Creation and Species Propagation in Religion, with Side Issues that May be Intertangled if Not Integral

Olaf Breidbach and Michael T. Ghiselin, “Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) on Noah's Ark: Baroque ’Intelligent Design’ Theory,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 4th series vol. 57, no. 36 (2006), pp. 991-2001. You may be able to download a PDF at this URL.

Roelof van den Broek, “Sexuality and Sexual Symbolism in Hermetic and Gnostic Thought and Practice (Second-Fourth Centuries),” contained in: Wouter Hanegraaff & Jeffrey Kripal, eds., Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, Brill (Leiden 2008), pp. 1-21.

Juan R.I. Cole, “The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i,” Studia Islamica, vol. 80 (1994), pp. 145-163.

Irving Finkel, The Ark before Noah: Decoding The Story of the Flood, Doubleday (New York 2014).

If you are short on reading time or can’t remember where you last saw your reading glasses, you can watch a big-screen video of Finkel's lecture on the same subject here that I can warmly recommend. His lectures are even ever so slightly more amusing and informative than his books.

Christian Frevel, “Semper aliquid haeret! The Accusation of Fornication and of Sexualized Cults as a Means of Demarcation in the Hebrew Bible,” contained in: Alexandra Cuffel, Ana Echevaria & Georgios T. Halkias, Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality, Routledge (London 2019), pp. 11-32.  Our opponents, or let’s just say our competitors, are people who engage in the most hideous perversions, or so we say... or so we want to imagine.

Minoru Hara, “Divine Procreation,” Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 52 (2009), pp. 217-249. Some gods do no more than share a glance and are finished. Others might go so far as to hold hands...

Nathan Katz, “Buddhist-Jewish Relations throughout the Ages and in the Future,” Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, no. 10 (Summer 2009), pp. 7-23.

Bernhard Kölver, “Das Symbol evam,” Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, vols. 16-17 (1992), pp. 101-108. We may need to have it pointed out to us that the shapes of the letters ‘e’ and ‘va’ in Indic scripts have changed over time.

Anatoly Liberman, From Ship to Boat. Posted on October 5, 2011. Have you ever let your mind wander and wondered how English boat and Semitic words for house might both have to do with the Sanskrit root √bhed, to split or cleave in two? If that's too crazy for you to think about, just forget about it and find another spot to dock your houseboat.

Shaul Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Hazot,” Daat: Journal of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah, no. 36 (1996), pp. xvii-xlv.

Charles Mopsik, “Union and Unity in the Kabbala,” tr. from French by Sunthar Visuvalingam, contained in: Hananya Goodman, ed., Between Jerusalem and Benares, SUNY Press (Albany 1994), pp. 223-242.

Sergio La Porta and David Shulman, eds., The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign, Brill (Leiden 2007).

Vanessa R. Sasson, Review of Emily Sigalow, American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 21 (2020), pp. 93-95. I haven't read the book, but this brief review raises some interesting points. It considers not only why American liberal Judaism feels drawn toward Buddhism, but why Buddhism doesn’t evince much interest in Judaism. We might add that, odd as this may seem to some, there has been a clearly observable trend in the last decade to translate Chinese philo-Semitic literature into Tibetan, with several such books surfacing (I've collected a few of them, and can supply references if required), but it is important to note that the supposed ‘love’ is largely based on anti-Semitic stereotypes of the wealthy Jew. This racialist image is held up as model for financial success to be emulated. Even religious Judaism is only considered of interest as a site to uncover hidden secrets for obtaining wealth. That, unfortunately, is just about all Judaism is good for in the PRC these days. Well, that’s definitely the overrriding impression to be gained from those just-mentioned Tibetan translations of Chinese books.

Daniel Sperber, “On the AUM and the Tetragrammaton,” contained in: Ithamar Theodor & Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, eds., Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Lexington Books (Lanham 2018), pp. 203-209. An interestingly different way of approaching comparative letter/phoneme mysticism.

Vesna A. Wallace, “Authenticating the Tradition through Linguistic Arguments,” contained in: Manel Herat, ed., Buddhism and Linguistics: Theory and Philosophy, Palgrave MacMillan (NY 2018), pp. 101-122, at p. 107, a passage in the original commentary on the Kâlacakra that I’ve summarized in these two equations:
E = mystery, lotus, source of phenomena, space element, the abode of sublime bliss, lion's throne, vulva, and secret.

VAM = sublime bliss, sublime attachment, the innate, the supreme imperishable, drop, reality, gnosis, and purified mind. 

F.A. Wilford, “Embryological Analogies in Empedocles' Cosmogony,” Phronesis, vol. 13, no. 2 (1968), pp. 108-118. Since Empedocles there have been no significant improvements in humanities theory. I said it and meant it.

Oded Yisraeli, “Honoring Father and Mother in Early Kabbalah: From Ethos to Mythos,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 99, no. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 396-415.

Shlomo Zarchi, “Why the Torah Begins with a Bet instead of Aleph, and the One Time It Didn’t.” There are perfect passages in the Zohar that could help us here, but I don't have any easy reference to them, and they were left out of the Littmann Library version translated by David Goldstein, which is an anthology after all, and the only one in my library. The 12-volume Pritzker is the first ever complete translation.

Web sightings

At Ørigin of Alphabet (www.originofalphabet.com), you can find fascinating pages on how the triangle served in cuneiform as a written character meaning female. For our purposes I highly recommend this page, and this one. I guarantee you that 'v's and 'b's and triangles will take on new yet oddly familiar meanings. According to Jennifer, 
Female mammals are the basis of written language.”

Also, have a look at Beyond Babylonia (www.beyondbabylonia.com) and particularly at this page. It clarifies in delightful graphics how 'b' is the enclosed domestic space / house, while 'a' is the domesticated animal (the farmyard outside the house). The original shape of the 'a' was an ox with two horns, as you probably know.

Postscript (Oct. 14, 2020):

Although I knew of his 1989 article on the subject, just today I learned that Jonathan Silk is writing an entire book on the first words that appear in almost every Buddhist scripture. See his newly available article, “A Trust Rooted in Ignorance: Why Ānanda's Lack of Understanding Makes Him a Reliable Witness to the Buddha's Teachings,” contained in: At the Shores of the Sky: Asian Studies for Albert Hoffstädt, Brill (Leiden 2020). The entire volume is made available for open access at this link.

§  §  §

The Babylonian predecessor of Noah, as he is readying himself to be sealed inside the boat he made, speaks,
“As for me there was no word in my heart, and / xxx my heart / xxx my xxx / xxx of my xxx / xxx of my lips / xxx I slept with difficulty.”
—Irving Finkel, The Ark before Noah, p. 110.

§  §  §

When you speak every
vowel is an opening,
every consonant a closure,
my heart keeps a count
of each syllable as it beats,
my mind lets the sweet sound
fade into its own background,
and left open is only the
sky above us
in this house with no real doors.
There is nothing between us.

Life itself has a sound. 


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