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.
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.
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.
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.
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
~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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 – which is the pair that determines your gender. 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.
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.
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.
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 paternal 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.
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.
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.
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.
There is much to learn from all of the Buddhist scriptures and each of the three main branches of Buddhism have their own interpretations of the texts. For those who follow the Theravada tradition, the Pali Canon are the most revered scriptures. For those who follow the Mahayana or Vajrayana traditions, the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are the most revered scriptures. The age of both collections are disputed, ranging from anywhere between 100 B.C. and 500 C.E. It is generally accepted that the Pali Canon is older and is considered the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, whereas the Prajñāpāramitā are considered interpretations of his teachings.
As I follow the path of Zen, a sub-branch of Mahayana, my interests lay mostly within the Prajñāpāramitā, which can be translated as meaning “perfection of wisdom”. Within the Prajñāpāramitā, there are many scriptural texts, among them are the popular Diamond Sutra, Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. In this series, I will be discussing each of them.
The version of the Diamond Sutra that I read was a translation by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a guiding light in my journey to and through Buddhism for at least the past eleven years. The sutra reads like a riddle and I believe this was very much intended, as the premise of the text is to see through illusion, and Nhat Hanh put it perfectly when referring to the sutra as “the Diamond that cuts through illusion.”
In the Diamond Sutra, Siddhartha Gautama is speaking to Subhuti, one of his ten most beloved and ardent students, about seeing through the illusions that cloud our perceptions of life, people, and even the Universe. In the text, Siddhartha refers to himself as Tathagata (pronounced Tat-ta-gata), a title he claimed after reaching enlightenment. In the Pali language, Tatha means “in this manner” and Gata means “gone.” The Gata translation is sometimes considered Agata, which is the Pali word meaning the opposite of gone and actually means “arrived.”
For centuries there has been debate over what this title is really supposed to mean, but the Buddha himself laid out why he claimed the title in the Sutra-Pitaka, the second nikaya in the Tipitaka. The Tipitaka is preserved in the Pali language and is known as the Pali Canon, however, there are other versions of the texts in Sanskrit and Chinese. I discussed the contents of the first nikaya in my article “From Samanera to Bhikkhu”, which gives instructions for those seeking the Theravadan monastic life.
Nikaya is a Pali word meaning “collection” and merely refers to the vast wealth of scripture contained within the entire Pali Canon. In the Sutra-Pitaka, the Buddha states that his title means he is all-knowing, that everything he speaks is truth, that his actions are the same as his words, and that he is the all-seeing.
Tathagata and the Buddha were not the only titles that Siddhartha took on or received in his lifetime. Aside from being the former crowned prince of the small Kingdom of Shakya, Siddhartha was also referred to as Shakyamuni. Shakya was the name of Siddhartha’s family clan, and the word muni means “sage.” Therefore, translated this title means “Sage of the Shakyas.” Because there was more than one Buddha, Siddhartha is sometimes referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha.
According to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, there have been many Buddhas over time, one appearing in each era according to Theravada. Mahayana teaches that there can be more than one Buddha at any given moment as there exists a Buddha Nature in us all, but it’s important to realize that these are aspects of various Buddha attributes and that it doesn’t mean that there is literally more than one true Buddha in our current era.
The Diamond Sutra sets out to reveal to those willing to study it that everything which is, is also everything which isn’t, and that’s why it’s called everything that is. Confused? Well, don’t feel bad, dharma teachings are often very confusing, but they are intended to make you think, to contemplate, to meditate on what is being taught. In Zen, this principle of meditating on meanings is practiced in what is called Koans.
Throughout the sutra, Tathagata poses many examples to Subhuti, essentially challenging him to decipher the truth in his questions and statements about reality. With every question and statement Subhuti becomes wiser to what is true and what is not, and why what isn’t true still exists in our concepts of what is true.
The best way to teach the fundamental lesson within the Diamond Sutra is to look at physics. Everything that we see around us is actually not what it initially appears. Even our very perception of reality is not complete. We see in three dimensions, but according to modern theories in physics, there are most likely eleven dimensions.
Albert Einstein once wrote, “To we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Physicist Brian Greene has stated, “The notion that events end or that moments in time somehow disappear, is almost logically incoherent. Because if a moment exists and if a moment is the smallest unit of time, then there’s no notion of that moment changing. How can a moment change? A moment is a single unit, a single point in the temporal landscape.”
We know that our bodies are made of tissue and that tissue is made of cells and those cells are made of atoms and those atoms are made of subatomic particles like protons, and protons are made of quarks. Based on the teachings of the Diamond Sutra, the statement that we are human is not actually true, we are tissue, we are cells, we are atoms, we are subatomic particles, we are quarks. And this is true of other things made of matter.
The Diamond Sutra goes even further than teaching us to question what we are. It also challenges us to question the names of things. After all, does a flower know it is a flower? What is a flower? Does a flower actually exist? The word “flower” is merely a sound made with a mouth and everything that we see as a flower is actually not that sound or the grouping of letters we call a written word.
If the word “flower” can be granted and kept, then a flower is the soil its roots pull nutrients from and the minerals and organic matter that make up those nutrients. It’s the photons from the sun it absorbs into its leaves and transforms into energy. It’s the hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water that it absorbs through its roots. A flower is the chemical compounds within it, the pigment chlorophyll in its stem and leaves and anthocyanin in the colorful petals of its bloom. A flower is really not one thing, but rather a collection of many things and many actions. We humans are no different.
I recently wrote an article titled “The Passenger,” which discusses what it means to be a conscious being and questions what it means to be a self. Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion and the Diamond Sutra is the sword of truth that cuts through that illusion, to make clear to the student through its concepts that by studying the teachings of Siddhartha one can attain the dissolution of the self or the ego and cut away the veil that hides true reality, and gain the realization that fundamentally we are everything and nothing all at once.
What is consciousness? It is defined as a subjective experience, an awareness of self or one’s surroundings and the ability to react to it. Right now, as you are reading this, there is someone inside your head. I’m not referring to you – the one comprehending these words, I am referring to the other one in there. The one who can read these words and draw its own opinions and desires, but cannot use your mouth to speak or your body to act, and is riding in the proverbial passenger seat of your mind.
Since the 1950’s, neuroscientists have been researching the phenomenon of split-brain. The human brain, and that of all vertebrates, has a left and right hemisphere above the brain stem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Your left hemisphere connects with the right side of your body through the central nervous system and your right hemisphere the left side of your body. Your left hemisphere is responsible for your ability to learn and speak verbal language and perform complex movements. The right hemisphere is better at perceiving emotions and expressions on faces, geometry and spacial relationships, and is more finely tuned to music.
The person comprehending the words you are reading right now, is formed in the left hemisphere, you are the property of your left hemisphere. There are nerve fibers in between your left and right hemispheres, these are called commissures and the largest collection of them in your brain is an area called the corpus callosum. For the average person these fibers remain connected throughout your life, however, in some instances of medical necessity these nerve fibers are cut in a procedure known as callosotomy. Such a procedure is done for patients with severe epilepsy to reduce the onset of seizures.
When this procedure first started to be performed, patients began noticing problems with their left side of the body doing things they weren’t in control of. An example would be wanting to place an object with their left hand on a table, but their left hand wouldn’t place it where they wanted it to be placed. Sometimes if both hands were holding an object, they would get into a tug of war with themselves, their left hand seemingly seeking its own purpose.
As clinical tests were performed neuroscientists learned that not only did snipping the nerve fibers between the hemispheres prevent communication between the two sides of the patient’s brain, but that the two hemispheres opposed one another in more than just function. We already knew that our left hemisphere retains memories, likes, and desires, but they learned that our right hemisphere has its own collection of memories, likes, and desires that can be all together different than the left’s. We are the consciousness in the left hemisphere, but it became apparent that when the brain was split, there was another consciousness in the right hemisphere we didn’t even know could exist.
How can we know both exist within the same brain? They performed tests where they separated what the left eye saw and what the right eye saw. When the word “egg” was flashed on a screen in front of the left eye and the patient was asked what word they saw, the patient stated aloud that they saw nothing. When the patient was asked to reach behind a blinder with their left hand and feel around in a collection of objects until they found the one that best represented the word that was flashed on the screen in front of their left eye, they picked up an egg.
How is that possible? Because the left eye and left hand are controlled by the right hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that does not formulate control over speech, but does have strong spacial and geometric perception. The patient’s right hemisphere saw the word egg and knew what an egg felt like so when it was asked to find it by touch it could easily do so, but because the nerve fibers in the brain were surgically cut in the patient, the right hemisphere could not tell the left hemisphere to say the word it saw on the screen, and therefore the left hemisphere (the patient’s sense of self) had no knowledge of the word or why the object was being picked up.
These same types of tests can be run using auditory equipment, where the audio can be played in one ear and cut-off from the other. As the left hemisphere is connected to the right ear and the right hemisphere connected to the left, a question asked in one ear may result in a different answer than the same question asked in the other ear.
In a clinical test, a young man who had undergone the same surgical brain procedure was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. When they asked him in his right ear, the boy answered aloud that he wanted to be a “draftsman.” When the boy was asked the same question in his left ear and was told to write down his answer, the boy wrote these words with his left hand, “race-car driver.” Therefore, the dual consciousness in the boy’s brain had two separate life ambitions.
Through these experiments the theory that human beings have more than one consciousness arose. For those of us who have the nerve fibers still connected between our right and left hemisphere, our consciousness is left hemisphere dominant in functional terms. Our left hemisphere has power over both the left and right side of our body, telling it what to do and when to do it. Even though the right hemisphere is in the passenger seat and not in control of the vehicle, it still has its own consciousness.
Right now, while you’re reading this, your right hemisphere is thinking its own thoughts, drawing its own opinions, storing its own memories, completely unable (allegedly) to force them upon you while your left hemisphere is dominant and because your left hemisphere is dominant it can reach into the memories of the right hemisphere and you as a person perceive them no differently than those stored in the left hemisphere.
Have you ever felt a desire to do something or say something and you honestly couldn’t figure out where the idea came from? Ever feel like a voice inside your head is telling you something? That nagging sub-conscious mind as we call it, may actually be the consciousness in your right hemisphere, desperately attempting to influence the choices you make and the environment in which you exist.
While your favorite color may be blue, your right hemisphere’s favorite color might actually be red and it may very well be sick and tired of you buying blue things all the time. Perhaps you have experienced a moment when you were drawn to something at the store that was not something you are typically drawn to, and yet you felt this unusual desire to purchase it. That unusual feeling, may very well be your right hemisphere desiring something it sees and attempting to assert that desire over you by ever so slightly nagging at you to buy it. The right hemisphere is after all, more in-tuned to emotional states and expression than your left. People who are artists, are strongly influenced by their right hemisphere.
Another phenomenon I will be discussing is Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be known as multiple personality disorder. Often caused by severe trauma, D.I.D. results in one personality or consciousness breaking into two or more. For an example, a patient named Kevin may only be in control of his body and mind, part of the time. In those other moments a consciousness that calls itself Aaron takes over, and when neither Kevin nor Aaron are controlling the person’s body and mind, there is another consciousness that calls itself Ryan.
Kevin, Aaron, and Ryan are different states of consciousness or personalities attempting to control the same body. Where or how these different personalities form is not known, but through clinical research we’ve learned some rather interesting and astounding things. D.I.D. is not like playing pretend, it is not like an actor performing a role in a film. When these personalities take over the mind and body of the person, that person becomes that personality. Kevin, Aaron, and Ryan can all be very different in their behavior, mannerisms, physical condition, and desires.
Perhaps one of the most astounding discoveries is that allergies do not necessarily have to be shared between the personalities. For example, Kevin may be allergic to peanut butter, and when he is in control of the person, any contact or ingestion of peanut butter causes the body to go into anaphylactic shock, requiring an immediate injection of epinephrine. However, Aaron and Ryan may not be allergic to peanut butter and when either of them are in control of the person, they can eat it without suffering from an allergic reaction. Currently, no one knows how this is possible, but since they share the same body they should all suffer from the same physical illnesses and allergies and yet they don’t.
The nature of D.I.D. is still very much not understood. I believe there is a connection between what happens when you split the left and right hemispheres, and what happens to people who develop D.I.D. Perhaps it is not necessary to cut the nerve fibers between the hemispheres to allow the right hemisphere’s consciousness to overtake the left’s, and that the personalities that develop in patients with D.I.D. are actually representative of more than one consciousness vying for control.
We do know that for most patients, D.I.D. develops after severe trauma or psychological pain. It’s believed that this development of alternate personalities is the brain’s or consciousness’s attempt to save itself from its current harmful environment or thought process. As an example, we could say that Kevin was physically abused as a child and at some point during these experiences his brain in an attempt to save the person or body, had either formed the consciousness of Aaron or the consciousness of Aaron broke itself free from the control of Kevin and had actually always been within Kevin’s mind. The consciousness of Ryan may have followed suit. Either of these possibilities have a drastic consequence for what we normally define a human being to be.
If a human being is not actually just one conscience being, but perhaps multiple, or an infinite number of consciousnesses, or even perhaps a collective consciousness that can develop into any individual within any body, then do we truly know anything about what it means to be a person? Is there even such a thing as a person or a self? In Buddhism, the main goal of spiritual practice is to eliminate the ego, the perception of self, that indeed there is no such thing as the self. Perhaps we really are merely a collection of experiences attempting to define themselves as one thing. Or as some philosophers state, we are the Universe attempting to know itself and our bodies are merely vessels.
For the most part the nature of consciousness is currently divided into two theories. It may very well be that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, such as space, time, mass, and electric charge. Others posit that consciousness is more than a property and is actually present within everything to some degree, a theory known as panpsychism. From stars to micro-organisms to even something like a proton, this theory alleges that each have a level of consciousness. Not in the sense that I have stated previously for humans, but that they do have some nature of consciousness, and even for protons some awareness of the electromagnetic force that holds them together with electrons.
Take the plant Mimosa Pudica, it has developed a fascinating response to physical touch over its evolutionary history. If an object or even a strong enough gust of air presses against its leaves, they fold up and curl down. It’s understood to be a defense mechanism to protect the delicate and crucial leaves from being damaged by insects, rainstorms, or strong winds. Leaves are crucial for a plant because they use them for photosynthesis, a process by which photons of light are converted into the energy needed to breakdown the minerals the plants root system absorbs from the soil and are used for other essential functions.
An experiment was performed with this plant where they dropped it from a certain height continuously. As expected the plant reacted to falling by folding its leaves and curling them, as it would against any perceived threat. After a while, the plant stopped performing this act of defense. It’s theorized the plant learned that the action of falling was not detrimental to its physical well-being and stopped wasting energy on the action. From this conclusion and based on the definition of consciousness, the theory can be suggested that the Mimosa Pudica and likely all other plants have a level of consciousness.
Philosophers, neuroscientists, and even physicists seek answers to deep questions about the nature of consciousness, including that of free-will. Does it exist? Are we truly the thinkers of our own thoughts or are we merely the observers of the thoughts as soon as they arise and falsely claim them as our own? If the right and left hemispheres can each have their own consciousness and patients with D.I.D. can have an infinite number of personalities in control of a single body, then can anyone ever truly argue that there is a self within a mind? At the crossroads of neuroscience and physics exists the evidential truth needed to explain the nature of consciousness, and people like David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christof Koch, Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, and Gregory Matloff have brought the necessary questions to the forefront, and perhaps even the right answers.
A conversation between Sam Harris and Anil Seth on the nature of consciousness:
“The mind withers and the soul may fade,
but the heart will always beat in sync
with the one who carries it.”
– Colin Madsen
February 18, 1991 – April 04, 2016
When we first met, Colin claimed that he didn’t have a cell phone, so our communication outside of in-person was solely by computer. He said he had no vehicle of his own and the first time we hung out, he had to borrow his mom’s little red car. We met up at Panera Bread along the Missouri Boulevard. We started out eating inside, but later took our conversation to the outside tables so that we could watch the sunset.
It was then that Colin first expressed to me his interest in traveling to Russia and studying their language. I remember explaining my dislike towards the idea, citing it a dangerous place. He countered that the land and culture were beautiful and fascinating.
Back then, Colin and I were both men of a spiritual nature, budding philosophers on the matters of faith, mysticism, history and the greater unknown. It was one of the things that connected us and often became the subjects of discourse.
I can remember that night so very well. The sudden advance of cooler night air, the sounds of traffic along the boulevard, the waning sunlight, the growing illumination of artificial light all around us, the smell of fast food wafting from all the nearby restaurants.
Colin had on jeans and a light colored T-shirt, Hollister brand if memory serves me. I asked if he was cold, but he said he didn’t get cold easily.
I can remember his hair, short and light brown, messy as it often was. His blue eyes, piercing through everything, always searching for truths hidden in subtly. His notable height and the awkwardness that comes with it. His absent mindedness, always getting lost in a thousand thoughts he never got around to bringing up.
I remember the way he would smile when he talked about the things he liked or the things that fascinated him, with the curiosity and eagerness often lost to us after the innocence of childhood. Colin never lost those things.
Later, after we called it a night, I made my way to my car in the parking lot and watched to make sure Colin got to his car and that the engine started. As he drove out of the lot I noticed he never turned on his lights. Moments later and just a few yards down the boulevard, flashing lights illuminated the night and Colin got pulled over.
When I got home I sent him an email telling him that I saw him get pulled over for not turning on his lights. He later replied, laughing it off and claimed without shame that such an incident was him just being his typical forgetful self.
The last time Colin and I communicated was on June 12, 2011. He was concerned about me, as he was always concerned about everyone he cared for. Colin was not the best writer and sometimes his writing didn’t convey his thoughts accurately. I foolishly took offense to the message he sent me and we argued. Time passed and we remained friends through Facebook, we still wished each other happy birthday and clicked like on some of the things each other posted, but as many friendships do, we drifted apart.
There are many great things to say about the Colin I knew, many of these things would be repeated by everyone else who knew him. It seems to me that remarkable human beings are often met with the greatest of tragedies.
Every day, throughout the day, I am reminded in some way of Colin. Even though his name isn’t in my news feed in bold letters linked to his profile as it had once been, he does not cease to visit my thoughts.
This year marks the fourteenth year I lost another friend from my childhood, she was only 18 years old, her whole life ahead of her. We never forget the people we lose. For some, these losses are so close to their heart that they lose a part of themselves with the passing of their loved one. The pain of that loss is initially so severe that it feels as though everything meaningful is gone and the value of their own life is lost with the loved one, the vessel of their very soul made empty.
The pain of losing someone that you once let into your heart isn’t about moving on, but about finding ways to hold on. The loss is like a deep cut that feels as if you won’t survive the devastation and even though time and love will make the pain hurt less, the scar left behind from that loved one’s absence will never fade away. You will always miss them, you will always feel their absence and there will be moments when you feel as though you lost them yesterday, no matter how many years have passed.
You’ll find yourself thinking of things you wished you would have told them, worry yourself with the thought that they never knew how much you cared. You’ll wonder if there was something you could have done, some way in which you could have prevented their passing. There will be a thousand why’s and what if’s.
Sometimes we don’t realize in life how much people mean to us until we lose them. Not because we didn’t love them or appreciate them, but because we took them for granted, the rapid passing of time fooled us into believing they would somehow be here with us forever. I am guilty of it, I can only assume we all are and I think that’s just part of being human.
We honor the people we have lost by remembering them and by living our lives the way they would want us to. With someone like Colin, who had a sincere wisdom in his soul, I am constantly reminded of his thoughts on life. Which is why I am constantly reminded of him every day.
Even though I’ve endured this awful experience before and I know he’s gone and I know I have to come to terms with that and carry on with my life, I really don’t want to. I don’t want to accept that he’s gone, I think I convince myself at certain moments that he’s just off on some adventure somewhere out in the world, simply because it’s less painful than the truth.
Even now, after the amount of time that has passed I still feel shock, disbelief, that it isn’t real. I certainly wish it wasn’t. The world needs people like Colin, we all need someone like Colin. Just because you know that you can’t undo what has happened, it doesn’t make it easy to accept.
Imagine life without your son. Imagine life without your brother. Can you Imagine such a thing? Now, imagine that at the age of 25, not only did he vanish, but that he was murdered in a land far from home. How would that make you feel? More than a year later, Missouri native and resident, Dana Madsen-Calcutt and her family have still not received justice for her 25 year old son and my friend, Colin Madsen.
Colin was a timid soul, not the scared kind, but the calm and gentle kind. He could be described with the usual adjectives such as intelligent, compassionate, creative, loyal, but he was so much more. He had a way of seeing through the proverbial walls that people hide behind, and could somehow know people on deeper levels than most others are ever willing to attempt.
He was highly contemplative, lost in thought often, but if you sat down with him you would find yourself in the midst of a deep conversation about a myriad of things ranging from the importance of protecting the environment to the interconnected nature of the universe and the meaning of life.
His power of empathy surpassed that of many people I’ve met during my lifetime. His unapologetic need to know how you’re feeling and his noble desire to make sure your spirits were up, highlighted the type of caring individual he was. He was never remiss in his concern for all the living things he encountered, whether they be human, animal, or even plant.
Colin was an adventurer, a free spirit if ever I met one and traveled extensively throughout his life, visiting such continents as South America and Asia. He spoke Russian and Spanish fluently and was learning Japanese.
He spent a lot of time exploring various wilderness areas, not just in his free time, but also worked to build hiking trails in Russia and as a guide for inexperienced hikers. He was an activist for environmental protection for which he received a warning from Russian police officials to stop participating in environmental protests.
I first met Colin when he was living with his mom in Jefferson City, Missouri. He spent some time as a student at both Helias High School and Jefferson City High School, as well as Terre Haute South Vigo High School in the state of Indiana.
Colin was enrolled at Columbia College before becoming a Russian language student at Irkutsk State Linguistic University in Irkutsk, Russia, where he had hoped to work as a translator at the U.S. Embassy. Irkutsk is located northwest of Lake Baikal in the Province of Siberia. Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest freshwater lake on Earth, and one of Colin’s favorite places to explore.
Siberia is an extensive province, stretching from the Ural Mountains east to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, covering an area more than 5 million square miles. Colin was enthralled by Russia, with its vast wilderness in Siberia and the mix of cultures converging from various parts of the Asian continent, he fell in love with the land and the people.
How tragic it is then, that in a place and among the people that he loved, would arise the tragic ending of his life.
On the morning of March 27, 2016, in the resort village of Arshan, located in the Republic of Buryatia, Russia, Colin vanished before dawn. He had been staying in a cabin there while on a hiking trip. Arshan is a popular little town on the edge of Tunka National Park, located just three hours drive west of Irkutsk.
In the days that followed people began searching for him, including a professional search and rescue team, but no one could find any sign of him. On the eighth day of Colin missing and after his mother had arrived to join in the search, Colin’s body was found not quite a mile away from his cabin, under a tree outside the village.
Aside from being accosted by the local police when she first arrived, Colin’s mom became quite aware that investigators neither cared about her son nor were concerned with finding the truth of what had actually happened to him.
When the Russian coroner released their findings, Colin’s death was ruled the result of hypothermia and an accident. Though the medical examiners found no drugs in his system, the investigators continued claiming he was under the influence of drugs at the time of his death. The investigators also continued to slander Colin, trying to portray him as a worthless drug using delinquent and immoral degenerate.
In the months that followed, American medical examiner’s had reviewed Colin’s remains and crime scene photos and found evidence of foul play. His body was still in rigor mortis when first discovered beneath the tree, a phase that takes place within two to six hours following death and typically lasts up to eighteen hours but not more than thirty-six, which means Colin was alive for most of the days he was missing.
His eyes and mouth were open and his fists were clenched, he had wounds on his hands and markings on his wrist consistent with being bound or tied up, he had bruises all over his body and a wound on his head suggesting he had been both beaten and hit in the head with an object.
They also found markings around his neck, consistent with strangulation with an object similar to the necklace he often wore, which oddly was in the possession of one of the officers who strangely pulled it out of his own pocket and handed it to Dana after Colin’s body was discovered. According to the pathology report, however, strangulation was not the believed cause of death.
They found signs he had been smothered when examining his nose, mouth, lungs and heart, the report concludes he died of external mechanical asphyxiation (suffocation).
They performed a toxicity report and found no evidence that Colin had used any hard drugs, and only found what could have been trace amounts of marijuana, which was so faint that it would have been ingested or smoked days before he even went missing. On his body under his clothes they also found plant debris suggesting his clothes had been removed and his body exposed to the ground after death. His clothes, however, appeared to have been washed before they were put back on his body.
You can learn more about Colin’s murder investigation in this Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty article.
Due to the American medical examiner’s findings that the manner of death was homicide, Colin’s family and friends wish to have his case in Russia reopened and have already appealed the initial ruling. The family has hired a lawyer, but even with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Russia they have not been able to reopen the case and their requests have gone unanswered.
Who would do this to such a caring young man? If you know anything about Russia then you know how immensely corrupt both government officials and department officials are, this includes police and investigative agencies and even state run media. You would also know that many criminal groups claiming to be representing state interests go unchecked and have been committing unforgivable human rights violations.
For years, people have been disappearing off the streets of Russia, right from their homes or jobs, hauled off based on accusations that have no evidence and are sometimes even based on allegations made by one individual. The victim of these false allegations is violently interrogated until they are forced to confess to all unfounded charges just to make the suffering end. Sometimes people die during or shortly after these interrogations.
It’s not just Russian police who do this, vigilante groups have also been doing this illegally in Russia without reproach from the government, especially in rural areas, claiming they are defending Russian state interests. I believe this is the fate that befell Colin. He and his family continue to go without justice for this atrocious act, and his assailants remain free.
Without serious political and public pressure, pleas for justice fall upon deaf ears. Colin did not deserve what happened to him and while we cannot undo it or bring him back, we can take those responsible off the streets and bring them to court to pay for their crimes and keep them from doing this to someone else’s son, someone else’s brother, someone else’s friend.
I want to close this article by sharing a letter I wrote to Colin’s family and other friends after I attended his funeral on April 16, 2016, as well as a letter I wrote to Colin posthumously. Up first is the letter to his family…
To all of those I met today and those who were there in spirit,
We celebrated Colin’s life and not the tragic ending. From the service in town to his resting place at the family farm, it was a memorable, honorable and touching experience.
I want to take a moment and say thank you to the members of Colin’s family and other friends, whom none of which I knew until Colin went missing in March. Through Facebook I’ve interacted with several of you over the passed few weeks and today I met some of you in person.
First, I would like to say I am sorry that many of you I didn’t recognize, I am terrible at putting names to faces. Though the circumstances of our first meeting was not the occasion any of us would have chosen, I am grateful for that introduction all the same.
I want to say thank you to all of you for the warm, loving and gracious welcome. Never in my life have I ever been so comforted, accepted and embraced by a group of people. Nor have I received so many hugs.
What an incredible family Colin has, I really could not find words at numerous occasions, at the outpouring and shared love today. I truly believe that today Colin’s memory and life were celebrated in a way mirroring his own remarkable character.
During my short speech today, I tried to reflect on the nature of our friendship, but as Colin once said to me, “Words are imperfect,” and I feel as though mine were. There were so many things I wanted to say that I couldn’t think of and other things that I simply could not say.
I hope this piece of writing better illuminates on what I couldn’t find the words to say and highlights the extraordinary family and friends Colin has accumulated over the years.
Such wonderful words were spoken, such heartfelt songs were sang, I was deeply touched by all of it and I know Colin would have said the same. His spirit was honored by all of it and all of you.
– Kephen Merancis
And now the letter to Colin…
In times now passed, you once said to me that words are not perfect, but I’m going to try anyway. We shared such deep and lengthy conversations about many topics, spending hours writing and speaking on subjects such as our beliefs and our thoughts, about our strengths and our weaknesses, about the things and the people we cared for.
We spoke of the things we wanted to see happen in the world, about how to become better men ourselves, about how life began, about humanity, about how all things are connected, about love and companionship, about what happens when we pass away, about nature, about beautiful countries we’d like to visit, about the stars and the very Universe itself.
So many things and I wish so desperately that I had saved all those conversations, even with your spelling errors and grammar mistakes. For time is a thief and has taken from me too many memories. Now that we can no longer engage in such conversations I am especially regretful that I did not cherish them and you more.
It’s so easy to see how many opportunities I had to reach out to you and reconnect over the years, and I now beat myself up over failing to do so. I am immensely sorry for not rebuilding our close friendship, this is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
You saw something in me, things that reminded you of yourself as you once said. It is true, we both spent a lot of time deep in thought, revered nature, were curious about other cultures and new ideas, we both were interested in meditation, Buddhism, and in understanding ourselves and our journeys through life.
You also saw in me what you referred to as potential for growth, and while I didn’t understand you back then or why you were so concerned about me and my life, I now understand your perspective and your compassion. Your lessons are now my reminders and I will not forget them. I will carry them and you with me always.
You were far greater a human being than I will ever be. It takes someone special to do what you did and be who you were, to leave behind such treasured memories and love in the hearts of those you knew.
I am so grateful for that time in our lives where our journey through this crazy world collided and intertwined. Though brief in a larger scope, it has left an impression on me. One that has not and will not fade away.
I know that you wanted to talk more, to spend more time together, to get to know one another more, and I know this because you told me so. And now we can’t and I think that’s one of the things that makes this hurt the most.
Although you never got the chance for us to reconnect the way you wanted, I have been astounded by all the incredible things I have learned about you and your life over the years that we have been apart. Through your family and other friends I have been given a window into parts of your life I had previously not seen or been a part of. What an amazing story they all have collectively told.
You were called many things: grandson, son, brother, nephew, friend, student, teacher… and you lived up to each of them.
Thank you for being brave enough to be yourself in a world that constantly tells us we are not good enough as we are. Thank you for always seeking wisdom and sharing it with others all along the way. Thank you for the open heart you never closed to anyone, no matter how much you knew it might hurt.
I wish we had more time. One more sunset, one more long drawn-out conversation about anything and everything, one more late night chat, one more laugh, one more smile, one more lesson, one more heart-to-heart, one more proper farewell.
Your light carries on,
To learn more about Colin Madsen’s case, I recommended this video by John Lordan of LordanARTS:
In this article we will explore the life of a traditional Buddhist monk, as seen through the eyes of a Theravada practitioner. If you don’t know anything about Buddhism, I highly recommend you check out my article, “The Middle Way and the Turning of the Wheel” which will explain where this spiritual path came from, the varying branches of Buddhism, and the core tenets of beliefs.
For someone born in the countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, where Theravada is the most prominent, life as a monk typically starts young. I have chosen the Theravada branch of Buddhism for this article because it has the highest ratio of monk to total population than any other branch. While laypersons can be Theravada practitioners, choosing the monastic life is seen as both a noble and respectable path. For those that choose to remain laypersons, their life is lived with far less rules, but must still follow five core precepts in order to adhere to Theravada teachings:
In many cases, due to the poverty in these countries, parents cannot provide for all of their children and choose to give up their youngest son to a nearby monastery to become a samanera, which is a word used for a student who has not yet taken his vows and become a full-fledged monk. Once he takes his vows and is ordained, he will then be known as a bhikkhu, a term used for male Theravada monks. While girls can join female monasteries as nuns in Theravada Buddhism, they are less common and for that reason I will be focusing on only male initiates.
A Theravada monastery is known as a sangha and I will be using both terms interchangeably throughout this article. Sanghas accept initiates of almost any age provided they are in good health. Even people who are foreigners are permitted to join, and in modern times the monastic life is not one that must be chosen forever. On the contrary, many men in countries like Thailand join a monastic order when they are young and spend less than five years of their life within a sangha before returning to civilian life. Much in the same way people serve in their country’s military for a set number of years and then return to civilian life if they choose.
The process of becoming a traditional samanera as we will be exploring here, however, usually takes place when the child is old enough to perform essential personal functions for himself such as bathing, eating, using the bathroom, dressing himself, etc. When a boy becomes a samanera he is typically between five and seven years of age, so in the United States imagine kindergartners.
Though certainly a shock to the system for any boy that age, being given to a sangha is hardly an act of heartless abandonment, nor are they held there against their will. On the contrary, Theravada monasteries in these countries are held in high regard and monks are revered and respected for their piety, and it brings pride and honor to the families of the samanera if they choose to stay until they become a full bhikkhu.
A monk’s spiritual life begins years before he is formally recognized as a bhikkhu. Before he can claim such a title he must first prove himself as a samanera within the sangha. This process is called the Vinaya and is full of ritual, education, reading, chanting, doing chores, listening to dharma talks, transcribing sutras (also spelled sutta), visiting the nearby community with his alms bowl, memorizing and reciting the Vinaya Pitaka rules (also known as precepts and there are 227 of them!) eating only twice a day, sleeping, and repeating.
There are many sub-branches of Theravada and each has their own rules and teachings. In most cases, male and female samanera and bhikkhus are not allowed to intermingle or even speak to one another, hence the separate monasteries for each gender. Theravada is the most orthodox branch of Buddhism and is the most strict, having more rules than any other branch. If a samanera or bhikkhu breaks a rule or precept, it is known as pacittiya, and he must confess to other monks, or to an elder, or perform certain rituals or acts of cleansing, or if it’s bad enough he may be removed from the sangha completely. As previously stated, the rules vary from sangha to sangha, but there are certainly some rather unusual rules for some monks to follow.
For instance, male samaneras and bhikkhus in some sanghas are not allowed to come into contact with any female who happens to be inside or even those outside of the sangha, and if they accidentally brush up against one while out in the community they must return to the sangha immediately and wash themselves and their robes, and undergo fasting.
In some sanghas, males are not allowed to pass beneath public clotheslines that have female clothing hanging on them. Some sanghas require them to never eat gourds such as butternut squash or pumpkins, most cannot eat any food at weddings or funerals, nor eat left-overs, some cannot sit on ceramic urns, cannot tickle another person, cannot scare another monk with the idea of ghosts, cannot light a campfire if they are cold, cannot walk on their tip-toes, cannot lift their robe above their ankles, cannot sleep in beds that are up off the ground, they cannot cover their head or face, and the examples go on and on.
Learning the Vinaya and preparing to become a bhikkhu can go on for years, anywhere from two or more depending on the samanera’s ability to learn and practice the Vinaya Pitaka within the Pali Canon as well as other particular sections of the canon and Sutras within Buddhist scripture.
Once he is believed to be ready to become a bhikkhu, the process of ordination within each sangha may have its own specified rules, but a general example would consist of a samanera taking his vows by reciting the first ten precepts, reciting three sections of the Kammavaca (a monastic decree found within the Vinaya Pitaka), and answering fifteen questions honestly. The ten precepts include the five I’ve already mentioned above that Theravada laypersons adhere to, but also includes the following five:
The fifteen questions the samanera must answer honestly are as follows, and also included are the acceptable answers:
Clearly these questions do not apply to everyone, as a girl is also allowed to join a sangha and become a full-fledged nun, known as a bhukkhuni. The age limit also does not always apply to new bhikkhus, as samaneras can begin their journey to the monastic life as young as five and can attain bhikkhu status within two years time (though such a feat would be astonishing). All of these rules and questions may vary depending on the sangha administering ordination. The names given in response above (Naga, Venerable Tissa) are traditional names used solely for the ceremony, and a permanent name will be bestowed upon the new bhikkhu after the completion of the ordination process by his teacher or the abbot/elder of the monastery.
At this point a samanera must surrender all possessions, including his street clothing. From this point forward he cannot acquire anything by his own request, but can only receive objects and clothing as offerings from the community or his family. By now he will have been given saffron (golden-orange) robes although some sanghas will allow the color maroon instead, they will receive a cloth belt (leather and other animal products are forbidden), a meditation mat, an alms bowl (beggar’s bowl), and depending on the sangha he belongs to he may also receive a cup, plate, two sleeping mats (one to be rolled up and used as a pillow), and a toothbrush.
His head will be shaved along with his eyebrows as a sign of devotion to the monastic life and the surrendering of the self (an act against the ego). Individualism is frowned upon in monastic life because such things can breed envy and jealousy between bhikkhu, having a standard of conformity keeps the focus on dharma practice.
Renouncing one’s possessions, titles, and hair is a sign of piety in other branches of Buddhism including Mahayana and Vajrayana, as well in some Christian monasteries where tonsure is practiced. A bhikkhu may continue to shave his head for as long as he remains a part of a sangha or he may only shave it for special ceremonies and occasions such as the anniversary of his ordination or on Buddha’s birthday. These practices depend upon the rules established at the sangha.
You may wonder why eczema would be a disqualifying factor in becoming a bhikkhu, the reason for this is that it’s a medical condition that often requires treatment. Part of becoming a Theravada monk requires you to give up all possessions which includes money and any non-essential hygiene equipment or medical supplies such as creams or ointments.
To avoid complications with these types of situations, those with pre-existing medical conditions or those who are quite elderly are dissuaded from joining. When you belong to a sangha you cannot seek medical attention without first asking permission. As you are not allowed to handle money, you cannot purchase medical supplies or medicine without permission from the elders in charge of the monastery.
All finances within a monastery are controlled by a chosen layperson. Any required medical expenses for monks must be requested and the layperson will then cover the costs incurred by the monk. This is one of the rare circumstances in which a monk is allowed to make a request, otherwise, any items received by a monk must be solely offered to them without the monk knowing about it beforehand. For example, a monk cannot ask for a pair of sandals and is typically not given them by the monastery. He can only attain them if a member of the local community offers them to him or a member of his family offers them. The same goes for books, clocks, cloth used for robes, etc.
If a monk needs to travel somewhere they must be accompanied by a layperson, lay steward or what is known as an anagarika – someone who has given up their life to be a permanent attendant to the monks within a monastery. An anagarika is required for traveling monks as they are not allowed to interact with women, make any type of monetary transaction or even touch money, and cannot order food or drink, request a ride from a taxi, or make any kind of requests from members of the community.
Once ordained the bhikkhu will continue to study the various sections of the Pali Canon and the many sutras. The daily life of a Theravada monk is quite uneventful. Much of their time is spent receiving or giving Dharma talks, attending secular classes to further their education (some even hold degrees), performing daily chores, traveling through the community from house to house in the morning seeking alms from the public, performing chants at weddings and funerals, performing chants at community events, practicing meditation, and reciting the precepts.
The average day for a traditional Theravada samanera and bhikkhu looks like this: