Prajñāpāramitā Part II: The Heart of Insight

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Prajñāpāramitā

Part II: The Heart Sutra

The second sutra that I will be explaining from the Prajñāpāramitā is the Heart Sutra.  If you have not already read Prajñāpāramitā Part I: The Diamond Sutra, I encourage you to start there before continuing with this article on the Heart Sutra.

The Heart Sutra is one of the shortest sutras known to exist, but in its lines it holds the entirety of Siddhartha’s teachings.  Think of it as a bud on a flowering plant, within it exists a bloom far larger than the tiny bud would lead you to believe.

Much like the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra is all about breaking through our veiled perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we exist.  This sutra is sometimes known as the “Insight Sutra” that can bring the student to the other shore of understanding.

Therefore, if the Diamond Sutra is the diamond-bladed sword that cuts through the illusions of our perceptions, the Heart Sutra is the opening of our eyes or the awakening of our minds so that we may know the truth.  In less analogous terms, it gives us the insight we need to better understand life in a way that will liberate us from our narrow mindedness of what is and what is not.

The emptiness that is described in the Heart Sutra is more an explanation of the inter-being of both being and non-being, than it is some kind of suggestion that all is nothingness.

Everything we perceive with our senses is exactly that, a perception of something.  But our perceptions of what is, attempts to define these things as solely those perceptions.  When in reality, they are far more than even our senses can define.  Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes this perfectly when he explains that a tangerine is more than the tangerine we see with our eyes, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, feel within our hands, or hear with our ears when we tear them open to eat.

A tangerine is the sun, the rain, and soil that went into its formation.  When you eat a tangerine, you are eating the sun, the rain, the Earth.  A tangerine is what the sun, the rain, the Earth looks like, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like.  This same understanding should be applied to all other things as well.

The Heart Sutra is the teaching that awakens us to the understanding that everything is a part of everything else, and in that interconnectedness there is a loss of individuality.  Not one that we should fear or anguish in, but one that we should celebrate.

There is no life without death, no death without life, and there is no joy without sadness, and no sadness without joy.  Everything is interconnected and there is no separateness.

The Heart Sutra as a mantra in Sanskrit: Om gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā

In English: Om, gone, gone, gone to the other shore, gone altogether to the other shore, enlightenment, hail!

Moments in Time

Moments in Time

A moment is more than a measurement and more than a memory, it is a place in time. A static point in the timeline of the Universe, never lost and never changing. Every moment that has ever come to be and has passed, still exists – just in a different place in time.

Think of life as a movie, each moment is represented by a frame in that movie reel. Each frame marks a different moment in the film, just as events mark different moments in our lives. Just because a frame in a film has passed while you watch it, doesn’t mean that the frame has ceased to exist. It still exists, just in a different place in time.

It is equally true that every person we have ever loved and lost still lives, just in a different place in time.

When we turn our eyes towards the sky at night, we see all of those little twinkling lights, each a planet reflecting light or a star producing that light.

These objects are light-years away from us. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4 light-years away. Meaning it would take four years while traveling at the speed of light to get there.

As incredibly far away as that may seem, the next largest galaxy nearest to our own Milky Way is the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.5 million light-years away. The Universe is massive, near unfathomable.

When we look through our telescopes at these objects in space, we are looking into the past. Some of the stars out there no longer exist, we only still see them from here because it takes so long for their last light to travel here.

Our own star, the Sun, is so far away that it takes sunlight about 8 minutes to get here. If our sun suddenly vanished, we wouldn’t notice for about 8 minutes.

The distance between us and these objects in space is more than just the space in between, it’s time too. To travel through space, is to travel through time, that’s why it’s called space-time.

Think of someone you have lost, think of a moment you shared with them that you cherished. If you got into a spaceship and traveled away from the Earth through space-time at the speed of light for as many months or years ago the moment occurred, and you turned that ship around to face Earth and if you had a telescope powerful enough that you could see people on the Earth, that person you lost would be there still living in that moment in time you experienced together.

They are still there, right now, in those moments, still alive right now. Just in a different place in time. They will always be there in those moments. For as long as the Universe exists so too will they.

If your loved one ever looked up at the moon, at the planet Venus, or at any one of the stars overhead during their lifetime, then look up at them tonight because the two of you will be looking at them together, just from different places in time.

This profound understanding is the most beautiful thing that astronomy has ever taught me. It has given me a great sense of peace and comfort. I hope it brings you that same feeling.

To Be Acknowledged As Existing

To be Acknowledged as Existing

7,432 Americans will wake up today to what will be their last day alive, most of whom will not know this ahead of time.

According to the American mortality rate published in 2016 by the National Center for Health Statistics, that many Americans die each day due to various causes. There will come a day, perhaps even today, where you or I will be one of these Americans.

Ask yourself, are you living the best possible life that you could live? Are you making the best possible choices? Are the actions you are taking the best possible? If today was your last, would you be at ease with the legacy you’d be leaving behind?

We live out our lives in the false belief that we are each rowing our little boats alone, lost in this sea of life, paddling this direction and that, just hoping to one day reach the shore. In our frantic paddling we lose sight of what is closest to us, and that’s the people around us, each in their own little boat, fighting against the waves of joy and pain, the kind that we often cannot know about without acknowledging the person.

Behind even the brightest of smiles there can be the greatest of pain, and every interaction with another person can be the difference between them holding onto hope and letting it go.

We don’t always get to know where people come from, we don’t always get to know what kind of darkness they have to return to when they leave our presence, but what we can be certain of is that we have the power to control their experience while in our company.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “To be loved is to be acknowledged as existing.” If people know that we care about them, they will feel like they matter, and when they feel like they matter they can leave their worries and hardships behind for at least some small amount of time.

Over the years I have met people who have experienced abuse at home, who were suicidal, depressed, bullied at school, who hated themselves, and those who hated the world because they didn’t think anyone cared about them. In our presence these people are more than a story, more than a tragedy, even more than just some person we know. They are a part of our lives and therefore part of who we are.

Every day and in every moment we get to choose what we say and to whom we say it. We have countless opportunities to reach out and acknowledge the people in our lives, to let them know how much they mean to us, how positively they have impacted our lives.

I challenge you to do exactly that right after reading this. Shout it out so that everyone hears it, call them on the phone, send it to them privately in a long message, send them a card with a hand written note, pen them a letter and mail it to their home as a surprise.

For as connected as we are through our phones and the internet, it seems to me that we are further apart than we have ever been to other human beings.

I think that we are so used to people always being there, that we become blind to the fact that they are there, their presence begins to lose its perceived value and only when they are gone forever do we realize the opportunity and value of their presence.

Learn to express gratitude to the living – tell them that they matter, say good things about them, commit acts of kindness for and in the name of the living, go and visit them, learn to acknowledge and appreciate those who yet live and who make your own life worth living.

Choose To Live

Following an extended period of depression, a friend of mine carved this into a park bench after contemplating suicide. He sent me the photo and I’ve kept it because I think it holds a powerful message.

Choose To Live

Do something that scares you. Go places you’ve never been before. Become the person you wish other people would be.

Ever since my mom died almost two years ago, I have constantly faced the mortality of my own existence. Too many people fail to see the fragility of life, the shortness of life. There are many dangers out there, but sometimes your greatest danger is becoming complacent and indolent.

By that I mean, too many of us fall into the trap of trying to make a living and failing to ever actually live. After her death, I felt like I needed to live. To get out beyond the familiar. To make up for lost time and missed experiences.

To not just be alive, but to feel alive. To see, to smell, to taste, to hear, to feel new things. To make choices that scared the hell out of me, to consider anything a possibility. To jump at opportunities, to get out of my comfort zone and try new things.

The most tragic thing about becoming an adult is losing that sense of wonder we have as kids. I’ve been trying to get back to that, trying to learn, trying to challenge myself, trying to explore, trying to feel alive.

I encourage you to do the same before it’s too late. Death, while tragic and finite, can be a powerful tool in changing your life. Death is a gift. I don’t mean just the act of dying, but the awareness of our own mortality. When weighed against death, so many things we give attention to are stripped of their falsely perceived importance.

In that moment our awareness transcends the veil of meaninglessness and for some small amount of time we see how lucky we truly are to be alive.

It’s a truth easily lost to the mundane comings and goings of daily life, which is why we must constantly remind ourselves that death is real and that it may be just around the corner.

For more on the value of existence, I suggest my article, The Inexplicable.

The Power of Belief

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The Power of Belief

I was born into and raised within a Christian community, more specifically a Catholic parish. This article will discuss how I went from attending a private Catholic school and Catholic Mass every weekend, to feeling a lot of doubt in faith during high school, to becoming a born-again Christian in my early twenties, and then finally becoming a non-believer. Seeing as today is Easter, one of the most important Christian days of observation, it couldn’t be a more suitable time to reflect on the power of belief and all that it entails.

Growing up, my family was fairly religious. We were not the Evangelist type that tends to go about proselytizing to non-believers in an attempt to get them to convert, but we were certainly a part of the Christian conservative ranks of Midwestern Americans. From attending a private Catholic school, to observing Catholic holidays and participating in parish community events and various religious sacraments throughout different stages of life, much of our lives pivoted around religion.

Throughout my childhood, the idea of questioning anything that I was being taught never once entered my mind. My family, my school, my community, everything all around me was immersed in Catholicism. It wasn’t just one small aspect of our lives, it was an integral part of everyday life. From the words we used, to the way in which we conducted ourselves and how we saw the world, faith was the lens through which we experienced life.

Belief, the tenants of faith, this wasn’t just ideas in our heads, it was action. How we interacted with those around us, whether they were family or stranger, belief was something that was always with you and in the things that you did. Of course in being a kid, however, religion was still something that I was not fully capable of grasping. It is not unlike learning to ride a bike. You can watch others do it, attempt to mimic them, but for the most part you still need a guiding hand when starting out. In time and through practice you gain a much deeper understanding of what you’re doing, the mechanics of the bike, how to control and navigate your way while keeping yourself upright.

Faith is very similar in that it requires due diligence, constant reflection, sometimes a guiding hand, and continued practice in order to understand all that a religion encompasses. As kids, we’re all easily distracted or led astray, adult things typically do not engross us the same way that humor or entertainment does.

The things that were likely to catch my attention as a kid were the lives and actions of the various saints, more than the salvation of my own soul, a concept I could not actually contemplate at such a young age. Transubstantiation was certainly not a concept I fully grasped. Even though the Catholic church teaches that during the sacrament of the Eucharist, the wine and the unleavened bread offered are literally turned into the blood and body of Jesus Christ, inexperienced children and even those who have already undergone the sacrament of First Communion, still have no understanding of what the priest or the adult congregation is uttering about. They look at the wafers of pressed bread and the wine for what they are and not what they are allegedly transformed into.

As an adult, I look back at such a ritual and realize how cult-like many of the sacraments of Catholicism truly are. Eating flesh and drinking blood are very pagan in origin, no doubt a concept adapted from old world belief systems when Christianity was subjugating non-Christians while it swept across Europe, absorbing many of the beliefs and figures of religions in other civilizations.

I continued to attend a private Catholic school, spending eight years of my life as a student there. Once I entered into high school, I found myself no longer surround by other Catholics. There were various types of Christians and some who had no religion at all. Public school was a very different place than what I was used to and most of the students I had grown up with all went to a different high school. Only one other student came with me to this public school and so I went through a bit of culture shock. I attended mass at church less frequently during these years, but I did fulfill my last sacrament, that of Confirmation, when a young person who was previously baptized becomes a full member of the Catholic Church.

It was during high school that I spent a lot of time thinking about what I believed in. Witnessing others who were not Catholic and hearing them talk about what they did or did not believe in, set in motion my own self-reflection. Things that I was once told to stay away from and that were considered a sin or the workings of Satan seemed less scary to me. I was less afraid of other religions and belief systems and slowly started to grow less interested in my own childhood religion. The world, in my tiny corner of it anyway, seemed to be expanding beyond what I once knew.

Throughout high school and two years afterwards I spent a substantial amount of time reading articles about other religions, watching documentaries about their history and belief systems, buying books about them, and looking for information online. I was immensely curious about the things that other people believed, especially people on the other side of the world, with their cultures and customs so different from my own. I acquired a thirst that could not be quenched by the religion that I had spent the entirety of my life, up to that point, steeped in and devoted to. I was tired of Catholicism, bored with it, uninterested in it, and above all else beginning to doubt what I had been taught was absolute truth.

When I learned that millions of other people believed in religions that were not my own, that they had their own views of a creator or in some instances creators, I was mind blown. I had been living under a rock of Catholicism and had no idea there were so many other belief systems out there, all with their own stories and figures, laws and codes of conduct. It fascinated me that my own religion was supposed to be the one true religion and yet here were all of these others, with millions to hundreds of millions of followers, all convinced that their religion was the one true religion. I wondered to myself how so many people could all think their religion was the right one while everyone else was wrong.

After spending some years learning about other world religions, I eventually made my way back to Catholicism. But the religion of my childhood was not the religion of my young adulthood. I no longer saw my childhood religion the same way, not necessarily because I was then in my early twenties, but because I had learned so much about the world, about cultures, about faith in a much more general sense, grasped more of an understanding of what it meant to believe and the power such a thing can have. In essence I both physically grew up and spiritually grew up.

I rejected the old way that I was taught to view various elements of my religion. I tossed aside outdated and irrational ideas and teachings, such as those about sacrificing animals, killing non-believers, beating women who had sex outside of marriage, and the list goes on and on. These things to me were not the Word of God, but were instead the trappings of impure minds who had attempted to use my religion to push their own beliefs. They were heresy in my mind and not what my perception of God would have wanted his followers to engage themselves in. Therefore, when I read the Bible, I skipped over the verses that I believed were penned from minds of weak men and not the true Word of God.

Other elements of my religion that were once distant or unknown to me became very close, exposed and available in a way that removed the obscure nature that once blinded me to what it meant to believe. It was in my early twenties that I became a born-again Christian, or to be more accurate a born-again Catholic. I returned to attending Mass on a weekly basis. I became much more vocal about my beliefs than I had ever been before, suddenly it became not just something that I believed, but it also became part of who I was, my identity. I didn’t just want people to know that I was Catholic, I wanted them to see me and the joy I found and then consider their own beliefs, to nonchalantly encourage others to convert.

I would even wear Catholic themed t-shirts in the hopes that people would point it out to me and start up a conversation. And this worked, people did often comment on my shirts, asking about it. Whether I was at work, at the movie theater, or that one time in a hospital elevator, men and women, young and old, would either comment on my shirt or ask me about its message. During this time I also wore a Cross around my neck, and in an act of penance branded a cross on my forearm, to act as a constant symbol of my faith in Jesus Christ. I did this believing that I should in some way make my own physical sacrifice for the ultimate sacrifice He made for me, a constant reminder to never again wander astray from following my Lord and Savior.

All of these outward things came into existence because of what I felt inside. A lot of people who come from backgrounds that are not religious, have a hard time understanding the power of belief. Without the experience of feeling it for themselves they cannot fathom why people hold so tightly to it. Rediscovering my faith changed not only the way I saw everything outside of me, but everything that I saw inside of me. I was literally born-anew, I believed that I had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I felt this swelling of love inside of me, a love for life and for others, a sincere belief that my soul had been saved and that I must live my life in such a way that reflected the teachings of Jesus Christ, for I was a living vessel of God, my Father.

In addition to the other things I’ve mentioned, I also started listening to Christian Rock. I favored bands such as Casting Crowns, Jars of Clay, Third Day, Jonah33, Red, Fighting Instinct, Decyfer Down, among others. Listening to songs of worship filled me with a sensation that I would assume many others feel when they listen to songs of worship. A sense of joy, like I was somehow in-tune with God, that His Holy Spirit was entering into me, and I felt strong, I felt safe and that any sadness I had went away, I felt healed, empowered, fearless, somehow invincible, like I could do anything. These are the types of feelings other people claim to have at certain religious gatherings, it is the power of belief.

Through these experiences I began to believe that I needed to reach out to other people through more legitimate ways. Naturally, I turned to ministry. When I was much younger, I had contemplated the priesthood, but it was not something that I ever pursued seriously. I had a cousin who had chosen that path and so I spoke with my mom about the idea. I didn’t want to take the time to go to seminary school, which all Catholic priests must do. Because I rejected some of the views of Catholicism, I did not feel as though I belonged in such a place, despite having the desire to change the Catholic church and bring it into a more modern ideology. Instead I decided to look for a Christian ministry that was seeking a younger generation of leaders.

I found this ministry with the Interfaith Church, which sought to bring people of various religions together. At this point I had gained very unitarian views of world religions, believing that the world would be a far better place if these systems of belief unified with common goals. I applied for ordination through this church and was asked to take a test and write an essay about my beliefs and why I was seeking ordination. I passed the test and was celebrated for my essay, and so the church offered to ordain me as a young leader of their ministry.

I graciously accepted and in 2010 I officially became a minister of the Interfaith Church, receiving a certificate of ordination and an identification badge. Soon after, I traveled to the local court house to make sure that my paperwork was legal and that I could legally perform marriages within the community. The county clerk took my paperwork to the attending judge who was not in session at the time and brought it back stating I was good to go. The judge came out to meet me and shook my hand, welcoming me to the community as a minister.

Not long after this took place, the doubt that had once been vanquished from my mind came back to haunt me. Just as my faith had returned with a certain vigor, my doubt equally came back with a virulent power that changed everything for me. Not only did I eventually stop believing in Catholicism or even Christianity, but in time I would stop believing in the existence of a creator god. During this process I stepped down from the church and informed them that I no longer wished to be a minister, realizing that I was no longer fit to act as such. They seemed baffled and did not know what to think, since I had previously discussed with them about establishing a new church in my local community. And now there I was surrendering my ordination and walking away from it all.

I stopped wearing anything that reflected Christianity, I stopped attending Mass, the world seemed to come crashing down as though it had all been a dream, a fantasy, a constructed set on a stage. For the next several years I plunged back into my own soul to search for answers, to ask questions I had never before dared to ask, particularly on the existence of any sentient god at all. In time I became an atheist, someone who does not believe in the existence of a creator god, realizing that I did not believe any type of omnipotent being existed, no such being could exist in this part of the Universe with the types of things that take place here. No being must exist unless he or she be evil. The process of course was not this simple, the questions and answers not so easy, it took years to go from being a believer to being a non-believer.

Science soon replaced the metaphysical way in which I saw the Universe and humankind. From physics to neuroscience, my understanding shifted from believing in the supernatural to looking toward the natural for answers about the questions I had on birth and death and everything in between. I looked towards people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for guidance and information. While they certainly helped on the subjects of science and psychology, they could not assist me in life after faith, as neither of them were particularly religious in their youth. Instead, I had to find my own way through and writing down my thoughts became for me a torchlight showing me the way through that darkness.

Being a spiritual person, however, means that the road cannot just simply end there, and it has not ended there. In more recent years I have spent my time going back to the old belief systems that once interested me in my late teens, particularly Buddhism as there is no creator god in this way of life. I have spent quite a bit of time studying the various Buddhist scriptures including the Tripitaka and the Prajna Paramita. For the most part, I do now identify as a Buddhist student of the Mahayana tradition, but certain aspects of the Theravada monastic tradition do interest me and I find it rather commendable to give up one’s personal life to pursue a life of study, service, and practice. I do practice meditation, but I am not interested in the esoteric beliefs of Vajrayana Buddhism, such as deities and the more mystical ideologies.

Apart from a structured belief system, or way of life to put it more correctly, I do also hold a high reverence for nature and the greater Universe, a very spiritual perspective of it and physics. I incorporate these views into my practice and carry on with my life without feeling as though anything is missing. One would think that the huge jump from ordination to atheism would leave someone wanting, but I have not found anything missing from my spiritual life. In fact, I look back now and stand in amazement at how I ever believed the things I used to believe. It’s as if I am looking back at a completely different person, as if the memories are not mine, but someone else’s. Perhaps in some sense I am, for the lenses I once wore have been removed from my eyes and I can now see the world more clearly, without prejudice, ill-judgement or preconceived notions.

The power of belief can do great things for you, but it can also do great harm. One must always be aware of what they believe and how it impacts not only their own life, but the lives of those around them. Anyone can believe in anything, the world religions are truly no different than the fictional tales we often cherish. Stories such as those on Middle Earth by John R.R. Tolkien, where the lore and tales are so well-thought-out that one could easily mistaken it for a real world religion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his lore is certainly far more interesting and enjoyable than anything the writers of modern or ancient religions offer. Even though such lore is known to be fictional, many people enthrall themselves with it in a way that is almost spiritual, making it a very important part of their childhood and adulthood.

Beyond J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, other fictional works inspire the same kind of love and loyalty. The Star Wars Universe, the Marvel Universe, the Elder Scrolls series, all of these offer a rich history of fascinating belief systems and stories of legendary figures that often out perform world religions in what they teach. The difference again being that people know these collections to be fictional and most people don’t even pretend to believe in them. Yet, in religions we have people believing equally outlandish tales of astounding feats and omnipotent beings and legendary figures, but all of these things written in scrolls, pamphlets, and books are considered true stories and are believed by followers as real. Except that followers of one religion will declare the religion of another to be false, while failing to see that his own is equally unbelievable.

Imagine a world where people believed J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters and stories were true, that his books and the films were considered sacred, and that other people believed that George Lucas’ Star Wars Universe was real and the films and books considered sacred. Each side believed the other was wrong and not only did they argue over who was right and condemn one another in the error of their ways, but that they went so far as to kill each other over it. Well guess what, that is the world we live in, it just doesn’t involve modern systems of lore that people are dying over, it’s ancient systems of lore people are dying over. This too is the power and the danger of belief.

How startling it is to realize that there is absolutely no more credence to believing in any one of the world’s religions than there is in believing in Tolkien’s legendarium. Neither can be proven to exist, but neither can be proven to not exist. You would be just as well off worshiping Tolkien’s created god Eru Ilúvatar as you would any of the other thousands of created gods among the world’s religions.

Lords of the Wild

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Lords of the Wild

For millennia human beings have created depictions through art and literature of fabled beings who resided in forests, mountains, and various other aspects of nature. These ranged from male and female beings who looked very human like to those who were either half-animal or half-plant. These gods, deities, and spirits were charged with guarding the various natural landscapes, including rivers, mountains, grasslands, and forests.

On every continent that humans settled, some version of these beings were formed in the human psyche, as any wilderness area was considered both sacred and dangerous to ancient peoples, offering them both the opportunity to survive and also the opportunity of death. Upon entrance into these types of places, ancient peoples felt a presence, as though they were being watched, their intentions and actions being judged as either respectful or harmful by the spiritual beings that dwelled within, who both awed them with natural beauty and challenged them with survival.

In this way, many of these beings were aspects of more than just guardians of nature, but also heralds of birth and death, and the changing of the seasons. These ancient deities would eventually spawn some of the most prominent gods and goddesses of the world’s oldest religions, spanning both monotheistic and polytheistic religions, and it was due to their rise in popularity that Christianity began assimilating these deities with their idea of the fallen angel, Lucifer. They in turn encouraged non-Christians to abandon the old world gods and encouraged people to see these deities as representations of sin, evil, and the loss of salvation.

Lucifer meanwhile became more animalistic in description, making it more compelling that he and the old world deities were all one in the same, avatars of Christianity’s satan.

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One of the earliest symbols attributed to these deities were horns or antlers, symbolizing the masculine force of power, dominance, or authority, the very same reason Lucifer himself would later be adorned with horns in Christian art and literature. It was one of several symbols connecting the ancient deities to their role as lords of nature and also protectors of all that was wild. Not only was it believed that these spiritual beings protected natural landscapes, but also those that lived within, both animal and plant.

From the god Yum Kaax who watched over agricultural efforts of the Mayans and Nerik the weather god of the Hittites, to the Finnish hunting god Nyyrikki and Georgian hunting goddess Dali, these spiritual beings were worshiped in the hopes that they would bring good harvests through farming and hunting. In more well-known ancient belief systems such as the Celtic, Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, and Norse mythologies, there are many gods, goddesses, and minor deities all associated with various aspects of living in-tune with and dependent upon nature.

The Green Man of Europe was heavily influenced by the pagan belief systems of pre-Christian expansion. During the time of old Germanic and Celtic beliefs, people believed that there was a spirit that didn’t just live among the forests and fields, but was very much a physical part of these places. The Green Man, for this reason, is often depicted as a living embodiment of plants. His face is adorned with deciduous leaves, his hair and beard adorned with different types of nuts and berries common to Europe at the time.

As the seasons changed, his appearance would also change. In Spring, he would be depicted as young with vibrant greens, sometimes with flowers and berries in his beard through Summer when he appeared more mature. In Autumn the leaves surrounding his face would have tints of yellow, orange, and red, the flowers and berries replaced with acorns, and finally in Winter he would be depicted as old and wrinkled, leafless branches protruding from his beard and hair, the remaining leaves damaged and crumbled with tints of brown.

In some depictions the Green Man was shown with horns or antlers and holding or wearing a torc, a type of metal band that represented status in Medieval times, while surrounded with various types of animals. These depictions were reflections of the Celtic god Cernunnos, who himself was almost always shown with these features and surrounded by animals, including a serpent.

The similarities between these two deities makes it difficult to determine which arose earlier in European culture, as both the Celts and the Germanic tribes lived in what is now known as Germany, before the Celts of mainland Europe receded to the French coast and the islands of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Whichever is the case, it’s the Green Man who would later remain a constant part of European art, literature, and architecture, as his leafy face can be seen even today in the stone works of centuries old structures, including bridges and even Christian churches, a defiant god of the wilds constantly reminding us that even man-made cities belong to the Earth.

While small numbers of heathen and pagan religions and spiritual belief systems exist today, still worshiping the old gods and deities of ancient times, and some avatars of Hindu gods still represent nature, much of the old belief that humanity’s existence pivots on the conditions of our natural landscapes has faded away. The Earth and its remaining regions of wilderness are now frequently considered less sacred or less vital to our survival, and instead are considered a hindrance, uninhabitable, or merely a resource to be used and discarded without respect or gratitude.

For those that remain conscious of their impact on nature and retain a certain reverence for all that is wild, without the need to manifest gods or deities, a new religion called Pantheism was spawned that intertwined the sacred and the natural through the thoughts of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He believed that the spiritual was not some distant thing only reachable by death, but rather was a living part of everything in the Universe. He rejected the idea that a god was some being hidden away somewhere out there that our human nature could not reach, but rather that such a being must instead be a force in all things. Inside the tree, inside the wolf, inside the man, above us and below us, and most importantly within us. Thus we are the lords of the wild, tasked with protecting the sacred.

The Inexplicable

1904 John Talken

The Inexplicable

Have you ever stopped to think for a moment how incredibly rare your existence actually is? The odds that you would ever come into being are literally on average a million to one. That’s literally a 0.000001% chance that you would be born. Yet, despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, here you are reading this right now. You are alive, sensing the world around you, learning, growing, experiencing the ups and downs of the human condition. An existence that’s so remarkably inexplicable.

Every kind of life is extraordinary, for the very possibility of its existence is fundamentally astonishing. Far more often there is life that never comes into being than that which does.

So many potential lives never become, are never given the chance at existing. For every human being that’s conceived as the result of one sperm breaching an egg cell, about 999,999 more do not. You are alive today because those 999,999 failed to come into being. Who could they have been? Have you ever considered it? Who were all the potential lives that died because you were the sperm that made it?

What have you done with your life that made their unwanted sacrifice worth it? What have you contributed to this world that made their unbecoming worth it? I have spent a lot of time considering these questions and others, since the deaths of friends and family over the past two years. I’ve also found myself pondering these questions as I have studied my family history.

The amount of premature death I have encountered in my family tree stretching back centuries has affected how I see everything. All the potential lives that never had a decent chance. All the children who never grew up, all the teens that died in their youth, none of them ever knowing what it’s like to experience the things most of us take for granted.

The boy in the picture above was my great uncle, John, at three years of age. That photo is the only known photo of him, he died not long after it was taken. He had a brother who died at an even younger age. From disease to accidents such as drowning, the fragility of life has never been so apparent to me.

Every morning I wake up and think to myself, “Let it not be today.” I feel as though I have so much work to do, so many things yet to write, so much research yet to do, I have now become ever the more aware that life is unpredictable. Every day that I get to experience the sunrise and sunset I am grateful for it. How unbelievable is it that we have all survived for this long, when so many others have not?

We are no more deserving than they, and they were no less deserving than us. Yet here we are, while they have passed into history forgotten by so many. I am no better than they were, no more valuable, no more useful, my life no more necessary in this world.

I constantly question whether I deserve to be alive in comparison to all of those who never got the chance. I think that we all need to take this into consideration every single day. I also think that the shocking truth is that we don’t deserve it. We’re not special, we’re not better, we’re just lucky to have been conceived and survived this long. And every single moment we need to remind ourselves that we need to make the most of it.

I have grown ever the more aware of how wasteful and unimportant so many things in our lives and in society truly are. Just the amount of time and energy that we waste on these things is appalling to me. In many ways it’s disrespectful to those who died young. How dare we fall into the trap of distraction and the sensationalism of utter bullshit, squandering away the rarity of every breathe we take.

I haven’t watched television for the past two months, after realizing just how many hours of my life I wasted sitting in front of that television. When I’m taking my last breaths, will I say to myself, “Damn, I wished I would have watched more television.” No, I certainly will not be saying that. My time can be better spent doing things that are more productive, more meaningful, and useful to my existence.

Every day we are granted an opportunity to live our lives better than the day before. I think that we owe it, not only to ourselves, but to those who never had the chance, to try to live each day better than the one before. One day we will run out of days and the question we will ask ourselves will be something along the lines of, “Did I live the best life possible?”

Ask people who work in the hospice industry and they will tell you that when people are dying, their biggest concerns are whether the people they love know that they love them. They worry about whether they made a difference in this world, whether their life made a positive impact on anyone, and whether or not they will be remembered.

Do something that scares you. Go places you’ve never been before. Become the person you wish other people would be.

Ever since my mom died almost two years ago, I have constantly faced the mortality of my own existence. Too many people fail to see the fragility of life, the shortness of life. There are many dangers out there, but sometimes your greatest danger is becoming complacent and indolent.

By that I mean, too many of us fall into the trap of trying to make a living and failing to ever actually live. After her death, I felt like I needed to live. To get out beyond the familiar. To make up for lost time and missed experiences.

To not just be alive, but to feel alive. To see, to smell, to taste, to hear, to feel new things. To make choices that scared the hell out of me, to consider anything a possibility. To jump at opportunities, to get out of my comfort zone and try new things.

The most tragic thing about becoming an adult is losing that sense of wonder we have as kids. I’ve been trying to get back to that, trying to learn, trying to challenge myself, trying to explore, trying to feel alive.

I encourage you to do the same before it’s too late. Death, while tragic and finite, can be a powerful tool in changing your life. Death is a gift. I don’t mean just the act of dying, but the awareness of our own mortality. When weighed against death, so many things we give attention to are stripped of their falsely perceived importance.

In that moment our awareness transcends the veil of meaninglessness and for some small amount of time we see how lucky we truly are to be alive.

It’s a truth easily lost to the mundane comings and goings of daily life, which is why we must constantly remind ourselves that death is real and that it may be just around the corner.

How To Research Your Family Ancestry

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How To Research Your Family Ancestry

So you’ve decided that you want to research your family ancestry, but you don’t know where to begin. Genealogy, the study of family ancestry, is both immensely rewarding and incredibly time consuming. For most people, the time required to track down and navigate historical records and research data will span years. If you were to sit down and think about all the information you’ll want to collect and all the countless hours it will take, you’d likely throw your hands up and walk away. However, if you take it one step at a time, you’ll begin to feel enthralled by the traces left behind by your ancestors, these little bits of information and records, teasing and pulling at your curiosity, begging you to keep looking, to keep searching for the answer to the question, “Who am I and where did I come from?”

The very first thing you should do is consider the generations that came before you. If you’re not acquainted with your grandparents, then you need to speak with your parents. Find out who your grandparents were, when they were born, where they were born, who they married, when they married them, where they married them, and the children that resulted from that marriage. Find out where they lived, when and where they died and where they were buried. All of this information is critical. Once you have gathered this information about your grandparents, then you are ready to move on to the next generation. If you’re lucky enough that your grandparents are still alive, then they can give you a lot of this type of information about your great-grandparents as well.

Start making a family tree using computer software, if necessary, like Microsoft Excel, or some other program. There are various types of online websites and computer programs created specifically for researching family ancestry that will help you build a family tree. Having the generations of your family laid out in a chart or family tree can help you visualize not just generations, but where certain people fit into your family. As you progress and find information for new relatives, the vast amount of data you collect will become overwhelming and difficult to keep track of unless you put this information into some type of chart or tree. This will help you find information later down the road when you need to compare or research the data you’ve already collected.

If you are not lucky enough to have access to your grandparents, let alone your great-grandparents, then you may want to look into local church records if your family is religious. Particularly Catholic communities have history books about local families that have been involved in either the church directly or at least within the surrounding community, often times dating back generations. Churches also keep log books of baptisms and marriages dating back centuries. Though long and tedious work, it can be fruitful if you know that your family has been within that community for some time. Once you have been able to track down your grandparents and great-grandparents, it’s time for you to go back even further. Most family history tracing back before the 1950’s can be hunted down online. Particularly through vital records and census data that have been archived by companies who through special projects turn documents into microfilm rolls. These photographed images are then uploaded online and tagged based on what they are and what information they hold.

Many state and even municipal governments archive data in this way. Before researching online, you may also want to look into local historic societies or check out your state’s archive center or facility. Some of these government agencies and community organizations also upload this information online, making it searchable. Some of the most prominent private research companies with websites are Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. While these two sites have a wealth of vital data, from birth/baptismal records and death certificates, to marriage records and federal census data, they also archive newspaper clippings, immigration passenger cards and cabin logs, and various types of public data including obituary information. Once you’ve collected as much word-of-mouth information from your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and you’ve run out of church history to navigate or your ancestors immigrated from another continent, then one of these websites will be your next source of data. While these websites are not free, and will cost you a monthly or yearly subscription, the amount of information archived within them will make your genealogy work much easier and more fruitful.

Websites like these also grant you access to data archived by other organizations, accessible to you through contracts. Websites such as BillionGraves.com, Internment.com, and FindAGrave.com will become essential in your journey through ancestral history. Both the websites for creating family trees and the ones for collecting cemetery information have applications that you can download on your mobile device, allowing you to collect data and build your family tree anytime and anywhere. Aside from these options, you’ll want to hit up search engines like Google, you can find a surprising amount of information about immigration, demography, and geography through search engines. This information can help you understand the locations where your ancestors came from, including immigration routes to the United States, and the trends in the occurrence of emigration from European countries through the centuries.

Genealogy is a lot like putting together a puzzle. You start out with only a few pieces fitting together, but as you collect more pieces and figure out where they go in the grander image, or family tree in this case, the more encouraged you are to keep looking for more. It can become addictive, at times I have worked non-stop researching and archiving data from sun-up to sun-down and vice versus.

The downside to relying on data online is that you are no longer in control of determining what some of the documents actually say. In cases such as European records or even United States Federal Census records, the websites that archive these have individuals translating them or transcribing the data to make them more accessible to you. The downfall to this is that you then must rely on someone else’s interpretation of names and places. Many, many times I have looked at a Federal Census sheet and the names the website transcriber gave online were not the same spelling of the name on the actual photographed Federal Census sheet. Another example are dates of birth and dates of death for cemetery sites, where those uploading the data will incorrectly report these dates and the only way you’ll know the dates are wrong is if you go look at the tombstone yourself or if you’re lucky someone has photographed it and put it online. I really can’t stress this enough, any time humans are involved there will be mistakes, whether that be mistranslations, incorrect spellings, or just flat out wrong information.

When searching in family records, in church books, or online there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Let’s go through a hypothetical situation to explain how you should proceed in your own research. Let’s say that your grandparents informed you that your great-great-grandpa on your father’s side was named Tony Mueller and that he was born in Germany sometime before his parents immigrated to America in about 1850. Well it’s not a lot to go on, but you’d be surprised at what you could dig up. Your grandparents tell you that his father and mother’s names were Henry and Connie Mueller. This seems like it would be a great help and since this figure from your familial past started his life overseas, then you need to start your research in the same location. Luckily, we have the internet and its vast wealth of information. However, immediately we should consider a few things. If we don’t know what part of Germany Tony was born in, do we at least know what religion his parents were? If we know what religion they were, we can begin surmising a few more things about him.

Your grandparents tell you that as far as they know, you’ve descended from a long line of Catholics. This helps us because for quite a long time Germany was actually divided into various and ever-changing kingdoms and principalities, some of which were controlled by the Holy Roman Empire and during this period parents gave their children Latin names if they were Catholic. Therefore, in our search we need to start with old world Latin versions of your great x2 grandpa’s name. Tony was not a name that existed in that form during this time period in Germany, not formally anyway. The name Tony derives from Anthony, but again that’s an English version of the name. The Latin version of this name used during this time period was Antonius. Now you’re getting somewhere. Your surname, and that of your paternal great x2 grandfather’s, is Mueller, but for him it was probably spelled with a German umlaut, so it would have been Müller.

When you do your search, you’ll want to use the forms of his name that would have been used during that period, as any records would contain the period-relevant spellings. Also keep in mind that last names changed in their spelling during this time period so if you have no results at first, try different variations. Sometimes they changed their first or last name with every couple generations, sometimes a single family changed their name when they moved to a new location, sometimes they changed it every time it was written down, sometimes when they were asked what their name was, the person asking wrote it down by guessing from the way the pronunciation sounded. Cross your fingers that your ancestors were not the type to do this. To learn more about names while searching historical records check out my article on the topic.

In your initial search for an Antonius Müller in Germany before 1850, you receive more than a hundred-thousand results to sift through. Antonius Müller and its variations, as it turns out, was quite the popular name. His parents may have recorded his name as such on his baptismal record archived by the Catholic church in the village where he was born. So your first task is to find the record for his baptism. Many times these records include at least the father’s name, but may also include the mother’s name and if you’re lucky her maiden name. As your grandparents previously told you, his parents’ names were Henry and Connie. Now obviously, you’re not going to search mid to early 19th century records for a Henry and Connie, these names are not period relevant. In Germany, Henry’s name would have either been Heinrich or Henricus, depending on how devout his own parents were and whether or not they were influenced by the Holy Roman Empire. Connnie’s name may have been the shortened form of Constance or Cunigunda, which the latter was a pretty common German female name at this time in history. If you happen to know her maiden name, you’ll want to use that in your search as well.

Let’s say you were lucky enough to find your great x2 grandpa’s baptismal record, well, that’s great, but let’s say you want to research more about him than just his birth. You’ll start by looking at what additional information his baptismal record offers. Typically they will include a location, sometimes as specific as what church the baptism took place in and other times it will only give you the city or just the province. Either way, it’s more information than you had before. Your next step is to use that location to search for marriage and immigration records because perhaps you’re not sure if he got married before or after he emigrated from Germany. Based on his baptismal record you know what year he was born in, since all baptisms at this time in history took place within days of birth due to the high mortality rate of children. The majority of German residents got married in the their mid 20’s to early 30’s, taking that into consideration you can estimate what year he may have married your great x2 grandma and it’s generally safe to assume that he married her in the same location he was born and the same church he was baptized in, which was a common occurrence.

Marriage records will offer you about the same kind of information as a baptismal record. Other than listing the bride and groom,and the date of marriage, they may also offer additional information. Not all churches recorded additional information, but if you’re lucky, you may find out who the bride’s parents were, including her mother’s maiden name. There are three types that I have encountered in my search, each with an increasing amount of information than the other. Type 1 will only tell you who got married, when, and where. It may or may not include the bride’s maiden name and the location may be vague. Type 2 will include all of that information and the name of the father of the groom and the father of the bride. Type 3 will have all of that information and the names of the mothers of the groom and bride, including their maiden names.

For the sake of this hypothetical situation, let’s say you find his marriage record and then want to find his immigration records. This will be a little more difficult, simply because they are harder to find. Those emigrating from Germany from 1830 to 1870, landed at one of three ports along the eastern coast of the United States. These were New Orleans, Louisiana, Baltimore, Maryland, and Ellis Island, New York. The types of documents you’re going to be searching for are either passenger cards or captain’s log books of those on-board. In either case, there’s usually not a lot of information about the travelers listed on these documents. For the most part they both will tell you who the person is, their age and gender, where they emigrated from and where they are immigrating to, the name of the vessel and the date they departed their homeland. On occasion you will come across passenger cards with more information including what their occupation was back home, whether or not they could read and write in English, and what their specific state or city of destination was once they got to the United States.

Once you’ve tracked your ancestors to the United States you will need to start looking for documents such as Federal Census sheets, (which are conducted every ten years in the U.S.). These documents will tell you where they were living, how many people were living in their household, what age everyone was, their race, what relation they had to one another, what occupation they had, what their country of origin was, what their parents’ country of origin was, whether or not they could read, write, and speak English, sometimes what their education level was, etc. Other documents of interest for your research would be death certificates. It’s important to know that both of these types of documents were not always available. Let’s use the state of Missouri as an example. Even though the Federal Census began in the late 1700’s in when the earliest colonies became states, Missouri didn’t become a state until 1821. Not only that, any Federal Census data collected in Missouri from before 1830 was lost from archives and I personally have not seen any older than 1840.

In regards to death certificates, the state of Missouri began issuing them after the start of the American Civil War, but almost no one participated in the use of these records, and even decades later only the larger cities such as St. Louis did, even during some years where it was declared mandatory statewide. I’ve never seen a death certificate issued prior to 1910 when researching my own family ancestry, so keep in mind that your ancestor may have never reported the deaths of their family members and so there simply may just not be an archived death certificate for you to find.

As far as these types of documents go, you will also discover that they contradict each other. Antonius Müller, who stopped using that version of his name and started calling himself Anthony Mueller when he arrived in the United States, was inconsistent with the year of his birth. In the 1870 Federal Census he may have declared he was 34 years old, but ten years later in the 1880 Federal Census he declared he was 41 years old. This does not make sense, but you will find this type of inconsistency with these records. Either it was because they didn’t know what year they were actually born or because they had a moment of absentmindedness. It’s difficult to know for sure, but I have encountered this scenario many times, and if that’s not annoying enough, Federal Census sheets, death certificates, and tombstones may all have conflicting dates of birth and death. His death certificate may state that he died in 1923, but his tombstone may show that he died in 1925.

It would not be surprising to learn that your ancestor may have honestly not known when he was born, such things were of little importance during their lifetime when life was harsh and short. I’ve encountered a few death certificates where the section for the names of the parents of the deceased were filled in with “unknown” or “don’t know” even though the information was given by the deceased’s child. Other instances include a child not knowing what their mother’s maiden name was, or when she was born or what country she was born in. It sounds bizarre, but this information was simply not useful to them during their lifetime and so no one talked about it. There were far more important things to do and think about that had real and critical impacts on their daily lives such as their next meal.

When researching your ancestors you really need to understand the mindset they would have had while living during that period of history, as you are faced with the choices they made. Often the decisions they faced were a matter of life and death. Some may find it shrewd that after Anthony’s wife died, he got re-married just a few months later, but his decision to marry a second time or even the first time had nothing to do with love or romance, but survival. This scenario happened a lot throughout history, marriage was not about all of those fairy tale things we tell ourselves today, but instead was about keeping yourself and your children alive as a father could not both work and take care of his kids. Very few marriages ever had anything to do with love, rather you chose someone to marry when the opportunity arose and perhaps if you were lucky you would grow to love the person you were married to.

I think above all other things, those who immigrated to the United States are perhaps the most astounding thing to learn about. For the most part, those who left their homeland did so for economic, political, or religious reasons, in the belief that life on another continent would be better. In some instances those who emigrated out of Europe had family members who had already left, but for many they knew no one living in America when they made the choice to sell their land and the possessions that they could not carry with them, said goodbye to their family and friends, went aboard a ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that would have taken six weeks to three months depending on the weather. A perilous journey that saw the deaths of spouses and children, who’s bodies were tossed overboard. The sacrifices your ancestors made to just get to American soil is one that I think all non-native Americans need to learn about and take to heart.

This brings me to my final point, and that’s to explain why anyone should want to look into their family history. After all, why should anything that someone who lived two centuries ago did, matter to you now? The reality is that it matters a great deal. If any moment in the lives of your ancestors had been different, if Anthony had been run over by a wagon when he was nineteen and died, his descendants would have never come into being. You’re able to read this right now because your ancestors fought hard to survive through the centuries and the many obstacles that each generation faced. Many children were never born, or if they were 25% never reached their first birthday. If they did, they faced an ever increasing possibility of dying until they reached the age of five. In all, 50% of children never made it to adulthood in Germany during and before the 1800’s.

These people lived and died decades or even centuries ago. Those who knew them personally, have also long since died. With the exception of historians, genealogists, and archivists, few people even know they ever existed. Even their own descendants don’t know them. I think we owe it to our ancestors to get to know who they were and the lives they led. To remember them, to bid them respect for what they went through in paving the way for our own existence. Their lives mattered, their history matters, and to undertake the journey of learning about and understanding our own family history is to remember and honor those who came before us. The greatest fear we all face is that one day we will be forgotten.

Ben Tre: Keep the Loneliness Warm

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The children of Ben Tre in 1968 praying for peace, photo credit Wilbur E. Garrett, public domain.

Ben Tre: Keep The Loneliness Warm

I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm

two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
in anger.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

This poem was written during the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) after the bombing of Ben Tre. The destruction of Ben Tre occurred 50 years ago today, February 7, 1968, when American bombs, rockets and napalm obliterated much of the South Vietnamese town, killing a thousand civilians who lived there.

Later that day, an unidentified American military officer gave Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett a memorable explanation for the destruction, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The bombing of Ben Tre occurred because the communist Viet Cong had invaded the town as part of the nationwide Tet Offensive against the Southern Vietnamese government, which at the time was supported by the U.S. government. The U.S. response to destroy the town was to stop the spread of the Viet Cong.

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Victims of the destruction of Ben Tre, 1968, photographer unkown.
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This photo of an unknown American Marine was believed to be taken in 1965, during the U.S. Operation Blastout 1, photo credit “The Marines in Vietnam 1965” part of an anthology by the U.S. History and Museums Division

Even as the Vietnam War divided the nation at home, the drafted American service members in Vietnam were just as equally divided about why they were there and the purpose of war as a whole.

An American soldier wears a hand lettered War Is Hell slogan on his helmet, Vietnam, 1965
June 18, 1965, 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin, photo credit Horst Faas of The Associated Press.
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September 12, 1967, Marine Cpl. Michael Wynn, 20, of Columbus, Ohio serving as part of Operation Ballistic Charge in Da Nang, South Vietnam, photo credit Bettmann/CORBIS, public domain.
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Viet Cong prisoner captured in 1967 by the U.S. Army awaits interrogation during the Vietnam War, photo credit PFC David Epstein, public domain.
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12 Jan 1970, Ben Tre, South Vietnam soldiers after a skirmish with Viet Cong soldiers along the Mekong Delta, photo credit Bettmann/CORBIS, public domain.

On June 11, 1963, five years before the massacre of Ben Tre, Thich Quang Duc, another Vietnamese monk and a friend of famed spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, had his fellow monks soak him in fuel and then Quang Duc lit a match and immolated himself in the middle of Saigon, in protest of the oppression of the Buddhist religion by the U.S. supported South Vietnamese government. He did not panic, he did not speak or scream, as his body burned.

 

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The photos in the above slideshow were taken by American photographer Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press. Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting as well as the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for these images. The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc sparked a rebellion that led to the overthrow of the government in Southern Vietnam and the eventual fall of Saigon in 1975.

Though Quang Duc was the first monk to self-immolate, he was not the last. Many others in Vietnam followed in his footsteps, but none were as effective or influential in their act as he was. Even in more modern times and in other countries and cultures, those under the oppression of regimes and governments, have also copied Quang Duc’s act, but it would seem that today’s world is more desensitized to this type of self-sacrifice and the act continues to carry little to no effect. In 2005, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, constructed a monument in his honor, for displaying self-sacrifice in the fight for peace and freedom.

 

For an in-depth look into the Vietnam War, its origins, key players, and its lasting legacy, I recommend checking out the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, released in 2017. Perhaps the most comprehensive look into the war that divided the U.S. like nothing else since the American Civil War. The breadth and scope of this documentary examines many of the most controversial decisions in our government’s history, the sacrifices made by men who both chose to enlist and those who were drafted, as well as the public response in the U.S. to one of America’s longest wars.

MetroFocus “THE VIETNAM WAR” With Ken Burns and Lynn Novick from Steve W. Thompson on Vimeo.


Listen to a conversation between Sam Harris and film creators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their film “The Vientam War,” a groundbreaking look into America’s most controversial war that began airing on PBS on September 17, 2017:

A preview of the this film series, as well as the option to purchase the entire series, is available at PBS.org, other media content providers such as Amazon.com and the iTunes Store also have this title available to purchase.

Genetics: The Basics of How You’ve Come To Be

Microbiology Biology Gene Dna Analysis Medicine

Genetics: The Basics of How You’ve Come To Be

Genetics are a fascinating thing. Most of us have forty-six chromosomes in every one of the some fifty-trillion cells that are in our body at any given moment. Each of those chromosomes is paired up with another into twenty-three pairs. Twenty-two of these pairs are called autosomes and the twenty-third pair is called the sex chromosomes. All chromosomes are made of two strands of DNA. There’s a total of 20,000 to 25,000 genes located in segments on those two strands of DNA, and roughly 10,000 to 12,500 of those genes are given to us from each parent.

Sperm and egg cells, known as gametes, are the only cells in a human’s body that do not contain the DNA double helix, but instead house only one strand of DNA each. This is due to the fact that reproduction for humans and many other living things, requires the conjoining of genetic material from both parents. DNA, or when not abbreviated Deoxyribo-Nucleic Acid, is what contains the information required to instruct your stem cells on what type of cell they should become and how to do their job once they are formed. This process of determination is done through the production of proteins.

These instructions are outlined in the sequences of the DNA alphabet, molecules that pair up along the sugar and phosphate “backbone” of the two DNA strands. These molecules, known as nucleotides, are Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine, and Guanine. Through hydrogen bonds Adenine always pairs up with Thymine and Cytosine always pairs up with Guanine. The specific sequences in which these molecules pair up within a gene are called an allele and will determine everything about you, from the color of your eyes and hair, to your height, and whether or not you like chocolate. Since we inherit one allele of a certain type of gene from each parent, these pairs of alleles can be the same or different, and if they are different then one can be dominant over the other. Even identical twins cannot have identical DNA, that is how unique the sequences of paired nucleotides are in each human’s genome.

A mutation in the gene’s nucleotide sequence can also affect whether it gets expressed or not, and even the way in which it is expressed. Let’s take a look at homozygous and heterozygous pairs of alleles and how inheritance works when one is dominant and one recessive.

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In the above image, known as a Punnett square, it shows the possible children for a parent with brown eyes who did not inherit the blue eyes allele and the other with brown eyes who did inherit the blue eyes allele. Since blue eyes is a recessive trait, represented by the lower case letter, it requires both parents to carry this allele in order to have a child where the blue eyes allele is expressed. The only way a child in this family will have blue eyes is if one of the two children with the recessive blue eyes allele marries someone who either has blue eyes or at least has inherited the blue eyes allele.

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Now in the above image both parents inherited the recessive blue eyes allele, and so now they have a 25% chance of having a child with blue eyes, even though neither of the parents have blue eyes. Let’s take a look at one more example.

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Due to one of the parents having inherited the recessive blue eyes allele from his/her parents and it is therefore expressed in them (they have blue eyes), these two individuals are able to up the odds that they will have a child with blue eyes to a 50% chance.

While determining eye or hair color can be interesting, what is the most interesting thing about genetics is the twenty-third pair of chromosomes. A man has an X and a Y chromosome for his 23rd pair and a woman has an X and another X. These pairs determine their gender and when they have a child, each will pass on one of their two chromosomes to their child. Though the X chromosomes can change – what’s called “recombination” – when they are passed on to subsequent generations, the Y chromosome does not (aside from slight random mutations).

Sometimes the X a male inherits from his mother is an exact copy of one of her X’s she inherited from her father or mother, but most of the time the X chromosome is a mixture of the two. The Y chromosome is the only one that is always passed on from male generation to male generation unchanged, it is the connection a male has to every male ancestor on his father’s side that has ever lived all the way back to the beginning of that bloodline.

For daughters, their genetic inheritance is often times more mixed as she by default inherits two X chromosomes that are typically a recombination of X chromosomes inherited from her parents and grandparents. This process can be confusing so let’s look at some charts to better understand how the X chromosome works.

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For a basic first look we will remove the Y chromosome from the equation all together, this first graphic shows how a daughter inherits one X from her father and a combination of her mother’s two X’s. A disclaimer here, in reality the X chromosomes of the father and mother should already be a mix colors, signifying that they inherited normal combination X chromosomes from their own parents, but for the sake of simplicity the oldest generations in these graphics will reflect solid colors. In the next graphic we will bring the grandparents into the mix.

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Now we have the paternal and maternal grandparents passing on their chromosomes to the granddaughter. You will notice that since the paternal grandfather does not pass on his X to the father, that grandfather’s mother’s X chromosomes do not factor into this at all. The paternal grandmother plays a role here because she passes on a combination of her X chromosomes to the father and that combination gets passed on to the daughter as it is the only chromosome she can inherit from her father. The maternal grandmother passes on a combination of her X chromosomes to the mother, and the paternal grandfather passes on his X chromosome that he inherited from his own mother, and again his would normally be a mix of colors already but for the sake of simplicity it is left as a solid. Next we will look at a rare event involving the X chromosome.

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On occasion it’s possible to inherit an entire X from one female ancestor – this is called a non-recombination X. It’s also possible that this X can remain a non-recombination chromosome for more than one generation, in which it then becomes a dominant non-recombination – essentially acting like a Y chromosome. Notice how the daughter in the above graphic has inherited a solid colored chromosome from her mother – whom inherited it from the grandfather, indicating that this X chromosome did not undergo the normal recombination process of mixing the two X chromosomes. This is called a dominant non-recombination because the daughter did not inherit any genes from her maternal grandmother’s X chromosome.

While this daughter would likely have inherited other genetic traits from her maternal grandmother on her other twenty-two pairs of chromosomes, on her twenty-third pair she has no genetic connection to her maternal grandmother. Now let’s look at the inheritance of chromosomes for a son involving the X chromosome.

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Just as with the daughter example, normally a son will inherit a recombination X chromosome from his mother, consisting of the two X chromosomes she inherited from her parents.

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In this graphic we can see that a non-recombination occurred for the mother, but it was not a dominant non-recombination because the son did not inherit that particular X chromosome from his mother. As I mentioned before, non-recombinations are rare and dominant non-recombinations are even more rare. However, just as with the daugher graphic shown earlier, this son has no genetic connection with his maternal grandfather on his twenty-third chromosome.

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You will notice in this final graphic that the son has no genetic connection on his twenty-third chromosome to his maternal grandmother because his maternal grandfather had a dominant non-recombination X chromosome that canceled her’s out. Just as the others above, the maternal grandmother’s genes on her X chromosome have now ended and that genetic information will now never be passed on to subsequent generations.

Through this process of recombination and non-recombination it is possible to have children who have no genetic connection on their twenty-third chromosome, or have children where one of them has more genetically in common with one sibling than with another. This varying degree of genetic connection can be seen in phenotypes – the genetic and environmental traits expressed in physical features, where two siblings may look a lot a like, but a third sibling may look very different from the others.

The fact that the Y chromosome never changes is the reason that only male DNA can be used to trace male ancestry. If a woman wants to do a DNA test to learn about her father’s ancestry she has to use the DNA of her father, uncle, brother, or nephew. While it is possible that a girl every generation could inherit the same dominant non-recombined X chromosome through every subsequent generation it would be extremely unlikely to happen.

Aside from genetic mutations caused during the copying of the nucleotide sequence, the environment also can change our genes over time, in quite profound ways actually. The genes you have now are not identical to the ones you were born with. A lifetime offers many opportunities for your genetic material to be changed by various things.

From the climate you live in, to the foods you eat, to the people you socialize with, your level of physical activity, your hobbies, interests including musical instruments, all of these things have the power to affect the generations that descend from you. Everything around you has the power to change who/what you are. Some foods can actually damage your DNA if you continue to eat them over time, much in the same way that age causes your DNA to break down over time. Some viruses can also change our DNA, the more often you contract certain types of viruses the more genes in your DNA can be changed because these types of viruses replace our human genes with their own viral genes, this sharing of DNA is part of how they survive. As much as 8% of the average human’s DNA is actually not human, but viral. Extraordinary and also terrifying.