Ben Tre: Keep the Loneliness Warm

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

Ben Tre: Keep The Loneliness Warm

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

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

~Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Story of Hiro-Kala Teaches Us

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What the Story of Hiro-Kala Teaches Us

If you’re not familiar with Hiro-Kala, I’ll give you a brief glimpse. He is a Marvel Comic Universe fictional character created by Greg Pak and Ron Garney, appearing from 2008 through 2011 in such series as Skaar: Son of Hulk, Son of Hulk, Realm of Kings: Son of Hulk, and Incredible Hulks. As these titles suggest, Hiro-Kala was the son of the Incredible Hulk ( the angry alter-ego of Bruce Banner), but more specifically he was one brother in a set of twin sons, often referred to as Hulk’s “dark son” or the “evil twin” of Hulk’s other son, Skaar.

Hiro-Kala and Skaar were born to the Shadow Queen Caiera of the planet Sakaar. When very young they were shielded by their mother when an explosion occurred in the their home city on the planet. Though she and many of the city’s inhabitants died, her sons survived, but were separated and Hiro-Kala experienced a very different childhood than his brother. While Skaar inherited his father’s Hulk-form ability and learned his mother’s Old Power ability quickly, Hiro-Kala didn’t inherit the Hulk-form ability and didn’t know how to use his Old Power.

Hiro-Kala was discovered by Axeman Bone, a barbarian and native of Sakaar who wished to kill the Hulk and his son, but didn’t know that Hiro-Kala was the other son of the Hulk and so he enslaved the boy. Hiro-Kala lived as such for some time, witnessing and hearing of his brother Skaar getting into fights and these fights resulting in destruction and death. Hiro-Kala endured a lot of harassment and abuse as a slave, as he was small and weak. Eventually he escaped and wandered for some time before he encountered a dying shadow priest who had a strong control over the Old Power.

Axeman Bone then finds Hiro-Kala with the priest and overhears the priest tell Hiro-Kala that if he wants to control his Old Power then he needs to kill him. Axeman Bone encourages Hiro-Kala to do it and offers his axe as a weapon of execution, but after doing the deed Hiro-Kala appears to not receive any control of the Old Power from the priest. Despite this, Axeman Bone breaks Hiro-Kala’s slave collar and releases him as a free-man, inviting him to join his barbarian military forces.

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Sometime in the future, Galactus arrives at the planet of Sakaar to devour it’s Old Power for himself. At this time, Hiro-Kala had been hunting his twin brother Skaar with Axeman Bone, who still had no idea that Hiro-Kala was Skaar’s twin. As the planet is being destroyed by Galactus and Hiro-Kala’s brother arrives to fight him off, Hiro-Kala begins freeing the slaves along with the Silver Surfer and others. Skaar fails to stop Galactus and the planet is destroyed, while Hiro-Kala blames his brother yet again for his actions and helps the others escape via ship when he reveals to them that he has learned to control his Old Power.

Long story short, Hiro-Kala grows in power and becomes consumed by it and his hatred for his brother, committing acts of war and killing innocent people he deems a burden or a barrier between himself and gaining more power. He grows so strong that he decides to lure Galactus to the new planet that he’s been inhabiting, and it’s on this planet that Hiro-Kala commits some of his most gruesome and barbaric acts.

Once Galactus has arrived, Hiro-Kala combines his own Old Power with the Power Cosmic into a new power, becoming one of the most powerful beings in the Universe, rivaling Captain Marvel and the Silver Surfer, and he uses that newfound power to poison Galactus. For the first time ever, Galactus is weakened and is convinced by Hiro-Kala to stop destroying planets and consuming their Old Power, and chooses to release the souls of the inhabitants from the planets he has already devoured.

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In his search for power and vengeance, Hiro-Kala became corrupt. The stronger and angrier he became, the more violent he became and began to see people as tools to be used or burdens to be tossed aside. He did perform some good acts further into his story, but only when it benefited him. He did eventually find his brother and his father, who he blamed for abandoning him, and they have a massive battle, wherein the Hulk and Skaar both try to convince Hiro-Kala to stop and change his ways. I won’t spoil the ending for you, I will embed videos at the end of this article for you to learn more.

So what is it exactly that Hiro-Kala teaches us? I think his lessons are actually quite clear. His character arc is one of an initially good individual who experiences a great loss at a very young age, then is separated from his twin brother and grows up without family, finding it instead in a barbarian who initially enslaves him. He lives a violent youth where he is emotionally, mentally, and physically abused, and the idea that strength and power are the key to a better life is constantly reinforced in him. He is only finally liberated from his slavery by killing a man, reinforcing the idea that violence was the key to freedom.

He grows into a young man who feels that his twin brother who had not only abandoned and forgotten him, but that had actually become a legendary warrior because he was born with his abilities and power, and Hiro-Kala is forced to merely hear of his brother’s stories of greatness and also the resulting atrocity. His brother led a life that Hiro-Kala, the scrawny boy slave, could have only imagined. He also hears stories of his father, a man he grew up without ever knowing.

This series of cruel events led Hiro-Kala down a dark road and he had no positive influence to steer him away from it. At every turn he kept being led in a darker and darker direction, while his anger and bitterness, feelings of abandonment, power lust, and vengeance consumed him. It’s a classic tale of a young man who loses his way and lashes out in anger at all the things he wished he had… control over life and a family that cared for him.

None of this means that Hiro-Kala was without blame, in fact he had many opportunities to change his ways and yet deliberately chose not to. Perhaps it was too late and the damage had already been done to him and he simply could not be reached and reasoned with, or perhaps others simply did not try hard enough and early enough to alter the direction his life was headed in. I’ll let you be the judge.

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To learn more about Hiro-Kala and take an in-depth look into his journey from gentle slave to heartless conqueror, I recommend the following YouTube videos that touch on the three main phases of his life:

Hiro-Kala’s origins:

Hiro-Kala’s rise to power:

Hiro-Kala’s family feud:

When A Parent Dies

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My parents on their wedding day.  My dad was 20 years old and my mom was 16.

When A Parent Dies

Sometimes we avoid things we don’t want to accept or acknowledge as true, a futile attempt to hold onto the bliss of unknowing.  Days after my mom passed away last year, I sat down and wrote about what I was feeling.  Previously the content of that article was only available to friends and family.  I have decided to share it publicly and had to edit it to change the tense from present to past, but it remains as equally powerful and heart wrenching.  Additionally, I have included a reflection on what the year and a half since her passing has been like for me.

My decision to release to the public this glimpse into the very personal pain I experienced in losing my mom was based on the number of people I’ve noticed who have lost a parent this year.  Experiencing the holidays for the first time after losing a parent is especially difficult.  I just want people to know that what they are feeling is not selfish or inappropriate, but rather a part of the long road of coming to terms with loss.

A couple times when people asked me how I was doing immediately following the death of my mom, I told them that it was surreal, that it just didn’t feel real.  It was a whirlwind, so much planning to do with family, decisions to be made.  In that rush it was hard to collect my thoughts, but the moments when things slowed down I could, and they filled me with grief and pain.

Many of my close friends and coworkers had known that my mom was sick for a long time.  But for those who did not know, she had faced many health problems for at least the last eight years before her death.

From common problems including blood pressure issues, low iron, to more serious things such as blood clots in her heart, lungs and leg, and the inevitable stent surgeries that are required to hold the vessels open.  She also had a heart attack, had a lung disease that caused a hardening of her lungs, another disease called pulmonary hypertension that affected both her heart and lungs, she had fluid retention, and finally kidney disease of which she reached stage four at the time of her passing.

My mom had been in and out of hospitals frequently over that span of eight years.  Much of what she had been through was due to smoking cigarettes from the time she was 15 years old up until she was about 64.  She also grew up with a very southern diet that included generous amounts of salt, trans fats, and saturated fats.

If you smoke, please stop, if not for your sake, for the sake of the ones you love.  When I was a kid I begged my mom to stop many times, but she kept saying that she needed them.  Nicotine addiction is real, and so are the consequences to your health.  She did finally realize what the cigarettes were doing to her and she quit with the help of medication, but by that time the damage was already done.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about her medical history, but back in January 2016 she was told that she had a few months to live.  She was in pretty bad shape and was in a hospital in St. Louis at the time.  I was not surprised by the news, but it was still hard to hear.  She took it hard crying that she was not ready to die yet, and none of us were ready for her to go either.

Eventually she was released from the hospital and came back home, by late February and early March she was feeling better, even able to walk around the house with a walker, crochet, color and even cook some.  By the end of March things began taking a turn for the worst.  Towards the end, she spent most of her time sleeping in bed, dealing with fatigue and the pain from her health conditions.  She was just so tired.

I’ve never known anyone personally who has fought so hard for so long against such painful and devastating health problems.  I never knew my mom was so strong and brave, until she was forced to fight.  And she did fight, so astoundingly, until it just became too much.  I think her love for family is what carried her for so long, it inspired her to keep going against the odds.

In April of 2016, I lost my friend Colin Madsen.  His passing forced me to think about the terminal illness my mom was facing and even though I had no idea a month later my mom would pass as well, I still found myself breaking down and crying about her health.

I had been trying to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the future day of her passing since we first learned of her prognosis, but after Colin passed, death was all too real.

On May 20, 2016, when mom passed in the hospital, it didn’t feel real.  Even though I saw her lifeless body afterwards, it still didn’t feel real.  I mean I knew it was, but my subconscious mind did not want to accept it.

When I was finally alone on that Friday night, it really hit me and I collapsed on my dining room floor and just broke down and cried.  Later I broke down again in the shower and again when I got in bed.

I’m not the type of person who likes to show emotion in front of other people, I try to be strong.  I hold it in until I’m alone and then I let it out.  So again when alone the next night following her death, my composure broke and I cried even more for even longer, until I fell asleep.  I’ve not accepted the belief in souls and consciousness after death for several years now, but one night shortly after her death, I begged my mom to let me know she was still around, I hung my hand out of my bed and begged her to touch it.  I pleaded with her to come back to us.

Some of the things that really triggered me emotionally after her death were objects that reminded me of her.  Personal things that she gave me or made for me.  So when I saw things in my apartment that reminded me of her I cried because they had such a profound new meaning.  When I moved two years ago, she crocheted some pot holders for me.  The night after she passed, I took one to bed with me, just to feel close to her.  I never thought a pot holder could ever hold such meaning.

The weekend following her passing, I was at my parents’ house again and went into her bedroom a few times, just to smell her perfume bottle, because it made me feel close to her again.  May sound silly to some, but when you lose someone you were close to, you want nothing more than to feel close to them again, to feel their presence.

Another thing that was an emotional trigger for me was thinking about baking.  Mom taught me everything I know about it, it’s something she and I would do together up until I moved out, especially when I was a kid because I was interested in it.  It’s one activity I have always directly associated with her.  The thought that I’d never again be able to call her and ask for help with a cake was gut wrenching.

She was the first person I went to when I had a problem that didn’t involve my car or plumbing.  Especially sewing up my clothes.  Knowing that when I called home she would never again answer the phone, that I would never again hear her voice was beyond words to describe.  That I wouldn’t walk into their house and see her sitting at the table ever again was bizarre, unacceptable and crushing.

I wanted so badly to look into her eyes again, hear her voice again.  I could not begin to explain how that new reality truly felt.  If you have lost your mom then you know, but if you haven’t I wish on all the stars in the sky that you never do.  I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.  When I wrote the first version of this article immediately following her death more than a year ago, I had cried six times before finishing it.

Going to my parents’ house and seeing her belongings was so difficult, it still is difficult.  Sometimes I had to walk outside because it was just too much those first few weeks.  Sometimes being outside was just as bad as it was summer time and she loved hummingbirds and flowers and they were all around the house and reminded me of her too.

I subconsciously kept thinking she was just still in the hospital and that she was going to get released and come back and I’d see her alive again.  But she was not and I would not see her ever again.  In the past when our family would have get-togethers at the home of my parents, I would often be somewhere in the house next to mom.  Even though I take after my dad a lot, I was very much a momma’s boy and always will be.

Selfishly I wanted her back, needed her back.  But she suffered so much for so long, I could have never asked her to stay nor blame her for letting go.  She was the first person to ever love me, before I even came into this world.  I will miss her immensely and my life will never be the same with her absence.

A year and a half after her death, the raw pain and grief that I felt back then has subsided to some degree.  There is still this subtle nagging of absence, particularly at times when a mother’s presence is either expected or needed.  I suspect that this feeling will never go away.

I would like to give advice on how to deal with the loss of a parent, but I believe that everyone has to find their own way through.  What works for one person may not work for another.  What I will advise is that you don’t try to shut out the grief or their memory in fear of the pain that follows loss.  You really do have to face it head on and work your way through it.

In my article I stated that I don’t believe in souls or an existence after death.  This remains true even after the loss of my mother.  For most people, this is a rather dire belief, as they want to believe that their deceased loved ones are still out there somewhere watching over them through some kind of metaphysical consciousness that retains all the memories, desires, and love the physical personhood once knew.  However dire it sounds, there is simply no evidence to suggest that life after death exists in such a way that the deceased is keeping tabs on our lives, or even that a soul exists.  For all we factually know, the brain within the body is the only piece of us that perceives itself as a person.  Beyond that we are just atoms, energy, and subatomic particles.

While most people think that a scientific view of life and death is depressing, the only thing it is actually lacking is magical thinking and fantasy.  There are many profound things that science can teach us about life and death that are based on the indisputable measurements of mathematics, that can leave you in awe and wonder about how we live and how we die.  Instead of searching for comfort or reassurance in the stories and fables taught in the world’s religions I sought these things from physics and neuroscience after my mom’s death.

The American astronomer Michelle Thaller in remembering a statement she made to her husband when they were dating proclaimed, “When the Universe began I was holding your hand and when the Universe ends I’ll still be holding your hand.”  She was referring to how all points in space and time all exist at once and that everything that happens exists for eternity.

I touched on this topic briefly in my article “The Passenger,” where I challenged the question of what it means to be consciously human, what it means to be a self.  I also challenged our perception of anything being separate from everything else in my article on the “Diamond Sutra.”  Physicist Lawrence Krauss famously stated, “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded, and the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.”

Understanding that the things we are made of existed long before we ever did and will exist long after we are gone, challenges our perspective of self and of loss.  How can you lose something that came into being before your own life and will exist long after you?  How can you lose something that you are a part of?  How can events that have occurred suddenly no longer exist merely because the body that set them into motion has forever changed?

Too often we think of life and death as two opposing events separate from one another.  That we are somehow either alive or dead.  We should instead see life and death as the same thing, both part of the same process.  Time and space are fundamental properties of the Universe, like mass and electric charge.  When you travel through space you also travel through time.  To travel one hundred light years in space away from the Earth, is to travel one hundred years back in time at the speed of light.  In my article “The Macrocosm Perspective” I wrote, “To see into the Universe is to look into space and time, to travel through the Universe is to travel through space and time.”

It is fundamentally correct to state that what once occurred or existed is still occurring or existing, just elsewhere in space and time.  If I could travel at the speed of light away from the Earth to a distance of two light-years, that would be about 11.8 trillion miles from Earth, and I could look back at Earth with a powerful enough telescope that I could see inside my childhood home, I would not see things as they are now.  Instead, I would see things as they were two years ago.

The distance of space is so vast that when we look through it, we are looking through time.  The farther something is from you, the further back in time it appears.  Therefore, if I could see into that house from that distance in space and time, my mother would still be alive.  She still is alive and always will be, just from somewhere else in space and time.

When we look at things on a micro scale, all the way down to subatomic particles and quarks, there is no such thing as death, only change.  Changes of matter and energy, things becoming yet other things.  The tiny particles that we are made of were here before we came into being as humans and will be here long after we are no longer walking around as humans.  No matter how we break down, whether that be by natural decomposition, cremation by fire, or alkaline hydrolysis, the tiny particles that collectively make us what we are will change, but not cease.

I don’t need to believe in souls or stories of heaven and hell.  I get the spirituality I need from from what can be discerned from mathematics, the true language of the Universe.  This is enough to comfort me in the loss of the people I love, perhaps too it is enough for you to find comfort in.

Prajñāpāramitā Part I: The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion

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Prajñāpāramitā

Part I: The Diamond Sutra

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.

The Passenger

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The Passenger:
Commentaries on the Nature of Consciousness

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:

His Light Carries On

“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

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His Light Carries On:
The Life, the Loss, and the Love of Colin Madsen

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.

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I think it was through the things that he cared about that Colin came to know himself and the powerful nature of his humanity. Though he had his own personal battles, he spent most of his time finding the connected spirit in everything and in everyone around him.

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.

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Colin once said to me that we should embrace our feelings, even the difficult ones. He said that even though it can be painful and at first-thought not very useful, our emotions actually show us that we have something more than emptiness, we have light.

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 in 2013, where he had hoped to one day 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.

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Though Colin is no longer physically with us, his spirit, his light remains. You can find him in the warmth of the sun, in the wonder of a blooming flower, in the peaceful silence of snowfall.

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.

With love,
– Kephen Merancis


And now the letter to Colin…

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,
Kephen

COLIN from John Pattyson on Vimeo.

To learn more about Colin Madsen’s case, I recommended this video by John Lordan of LordanARTS:

If you would like to donate to Dana’s GoFundMe, to support them financially in seeking justice for Colin, please do so by clicking below:

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From Samanera to Bhikkhu: The Life of a Traditional Theravada Monk

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From Samanera to Bhikkhu:
The Life of a Traditional Theravada Monk

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:

  • Refrain from harming living beings.
  • Refrain from taking that which is not freely given.
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  • Refrain from wrong speech such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip, and harsh speech.
  • Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs.

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:

  • Refrain from consuming food between noon and dawn.
  • Refrain from dancing, singing, listening to music, and watching entertainment.
  • Refrain from wearing deodorant, cologne, and jewelry.
  • Refrain from sleeping in a bed that is lifted off the ground or has a box-spring mattress.
  • Refrain from accepting gold and silver (money).

The fifteen questions the samanera must answer honestly are as follows, and also included are the acceptable answers:

  • Do you have leprosy?  –  No
  • Do you have boils?  –  No
  • Do you have eczema?  –  No
  • Do you have tuberculosis?  –  No
  • Do you have epilepsy?  –  No
  • Are you a human being?  –  Yes
  • Are you a man?  –  Yes
  • Are you a free man?  –  Yes
  • Are you free from debts?  –  Yes
  • Are you free from government service?  –  Yes
  • Do you have your parents’ permission?  –  Yes
  • Are you at least 20 years of age?  –  Yes
  • Do you have your bowl and robes?  –  Yes
  • What is your name?  –  My name is Naga
  • What is the name of your preceptor (ordaining elder)?  –  Venerable Tissa

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:

  1.  Wake up before sunrise, depending on where they are this can be as early as 4:00 AM.
  2.  For the next hour or so the monks will meditate and chant.  A samanera may practice memorizing the Vinaya Pitaka, while bhikkhus may continue studying the entire Pali Cannon.
  3.  Depending on the sangha, monks may brush their teeth before or after having morning tea.  Tea plays a big role in their lives, it is one of the few things they can drink throughout the day.  Part of the job of an anagarika or lay steward of the monastery is to assist elder bhikkhus in the preparation of tea and food for the sangha.  It’s interesting to note that Theravada monks, in the traditional sense, are not vegan, and only some are vegetarian.  In fact, some Theravada monks do eat meat if it is offered to them.  Consuming honey, milk, and cheese is a necessary part of the average monk’s daily life.
  4.  After morning tea they perform morning chores.
  5.  By 6:00 or 7:00 AM, they travel out into the local community to collect offerings with their alms bowels.  It’s important to note here that in some sanghas this is not performed every day, and in fact some retain storage rooms (sometimes off sangha grounds) of food supplies that have been donated to the monastery.  Because samaneras and bhikkhus are not allowed to accept more than they need, these donations are made to the anagarika or lay steward of the sangha who then in turn prepares and offers the food to the monks at breakfast and lunch.
  6.  At 8:00 AM they perform a ceremony and make a food offering to Buddha.  Followed by their own breakfast.  As with all aspects of their life, there are rules for how to eat and there are 30 of them ascribed by Buddha.  These rules range from not putting your fingers in your mouth to not touching your vessel of water with the same hand that you’re eating with, and not playing with your food.  Essentially these 30 rules can be allotted to the following:  Do not be rude, do not be messy, do not be greedy, do not be wasteful.
  7.  Afterwards they chant more verses of various Buddhist scripture.
  8. Between this point and noon, they will bathe and wash their robes.  Samanera will attend Dharma talks with elder monks and practice meditation and their chants.  Secular education is important in monastic life, both bhikkhu and samanera will attend classes led by elder bhikkhu and lay teachers.
  9.  At or near 12:00 PM, they will eat lunch, their last meal of the day.  Solid food after this time of day is forbidden.  They are permitted to drink coffee and tea, and consume cheese, honey and non-dairy chocolate as they are not considered staple foods.
  10.  From the afternoon until evening the monks will continue their personal studies, recite chants, memorize sections of the Pali Canon, meditate, perform chores around the sangha, take personal time, and retire for the night between 8:00 and 10:00 PM depending on the sangha.

How To Start Eating Better

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How To Start Eating Better

Cooking tip:  When cooking meats, eggs, vegetables, potatoes, and in some cases grains, you should saute, fry (never deep fry), grill, bake, or boil them with extra virgin olive oil as a marinade and seasoned with herbs or spices and never use butter or any other type of saturated fat or trans-unsaturated fat.

There is such a thing as a good fat and a bad fat, bad fats are saturated fats or trans fats that are in many processed foods and cooking oils and spreads, sometimes being sold as a solid in a can or jar, such as palm kernel oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, coconut oil, vegetable shortening, margarine, butter, etc.

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the types of fats that your body needs to keep your bad cholesterol down and will keep your cells healthy due to the omega fat in them.  Many nutrients are fat-soluble, which means they need a fat in order for your body to absorb it.

Good fats are found in oils such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, flax-seed oil, and grapeseed oil.  You can also bake with certain oils instead of butter or margarine, I use extra virgin olive oil as a replacement for butter in everything due to its undetectable taste and the fact that the two have recipe measurement equivalency, so one cup of butter is equal to one cup of extra virgin olive oil.

 

Protein Source:  30 – 40 grams of protein is your target amount per meal, as the human body can only absorb that many grams of protein in one sitting.  A protein is a combination of amino acids called amino acid chains, and what’s called a complete protein is one that offers all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own.  Not all of those listed below provide a complete protein source, but all contain at least some of the following nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Meats, eggs, and dairy milk provide a complete protein on their own, and so do chia seeds, however, legumes and nuts often require being matched with a whole grain such as oats to create a complete protein.  Knowing this rule of matching nuts with grains will help you adequately consume all nine essential amino acids needed for muscle repair.

⦁ Eggs

⦁ Dairy Milk (or lactose-free dairy milk) or Non-Dairy Nut Sourced Milk such as cashew, almond, soy, etc.  Aside from protein, milk also offers high amounts of calcium and is fortified with Vitamin D, making it the most prominent source of these two nutrients.  While a certain amount of Vitamin D is found naturally in fish skin and liver, cheese, egg yolks, and even some species of mushrooms, it does not naturally exist in much else, except for one other prominent source and that’s the sun.  When ultra-violet rays hit your skin, it triggers a process of synthesis, resulting in the creation of Vitamin D.  Whether from the sun or milk, once in your body it must pass through your liver or kidneys for it to be used by your body.  Without it, your body cannot absorb calcium properly, resulting in depleted mineralization of the bones and making them prone to breaks.

⦁ Greek Yogurt

⦁ Whole Grains and seeds such as Oats, Quinoa, Sorghum, Amaranth, and Chia Seeds – these can be found in such foods as oatmeal, cereal, whole grain bread, granola, etc, or can be purchased on their own separately.

⦁ Black walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, peanut butter.

⦁ Several of the above two source options can be found in nutrition bars, energy bars, and protein bars.

⦁ Legumes – such as lentils, split peas, soybeans, black beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), etc.

⦁ Protein Supplements – whey protein powder (a dairy product), such as Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100% Whey.  Other protein supplements exist that derive their protein from other sources such as eggs, plants, seeds, nuts, etc., but whey is the best in my opinion, and if you’re lactose intolerant this particular brand contains the enzyme lactase which breaks down any lactose that it contains.

⦁ Meats such as chicken, turkey, fish, but stay away from red meat like beef as it is hard on your intestinal system and takes longer for your body to break down and digest, also try to avoid fatty meats like pork.

 

Fruits, Vegetables, and Tubers:  Surprisingly, sweet peas, green beans, and gourds, are all classified scientifically as fruit and not vegetables because they develop from flower blossoms.  Vegetables on the other, such as lettuce, celery, cabbage, asparagus, do not develop from a flower blossom, but instead are the plant itself or a part of the plant such as the stem or leaf.  Carrots, like potatoes, grow as part of a plant’s root system so they are not technically a vegetable and are actually a tuber.

I’m putting all three of these groups together because many people don’t know or even care whether something is a vegetable, tuber, or a fruit, and honestly neither do I because they’re all carbohydrates or starches and what determines a fruit, vegetable, or tuber’s importance is its nutritional value and what vitamins and minerals it provides.  Henceforth, I will refer to all of these as plants and plant products.

The reason green and dark (blue or purple) plants and plant products are pushed as “healthier” is because they allegedly contain more nutrients and anti-oxidants, but that’s not quite accurate.  Color variations are actually just the result of varying pigments from phytochemicals such as carotenoids, chlorophyll, and anthocyanin.  Carotenoids, give plants and plant products varying pigments such as bright red, orange, and yellow.  Chlorophyll gives them their varying hues of green, and anthocyanin gives them hues of dark red, purple, and blue.

Corn, which is a vegetable that can be used as a grain when dried, contains anti-oxidants and also both lutein and zeaxanthin which are nutrients necessary for healthy eyes.  Orange plant products such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots contain beta-carotene, which is an anti-oxidant and when processed through your liver produces vitamin A (also known as retinol).  Vitamin A is important for many things including to maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucus membranes, skin, and sustain healthy vision.

Another example of a food item that is not green or purple and yet still has nutritional value is the water chestnut which is white in appearance, but one serving of which contains 10% of your daily value of B-12 and potassium.

The following is just a list of some of the fruits, vegetables, and tubers I like due to taste and versatility.  Add to the list all you want, there’s no such thing as a bad vegetable, tuber, or fruit (just bad tasting ones).

Also remember that herbs and spices are plants or are plant derived and therefore, deserve a place among these.  Herbs such as rosemary, have long been admired for their nutritional benefits, having anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antiseptic, or antioxidant properties.  This is why you should stop adding the mineral compound of sodium and chloride (also known as salt) to your foods and start adding herbs and spices.  Even organic foods contain enough of the mineral sodium that there is no need to add salt to any food you are cooking!

⦁ Green peppers, red peppers, yellow peppers, orange peppers, romaine, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, cucumber, peas, green beans, watermelon, sweet potatoes, corn, red beets, water chestnuts, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, bananas, acai berries, apples, oranges, cranberries, pineapple, kiwi, papaya, mango, and the list goes on and on.

 

Grains:  Everyone knows that grains give you fiber and carbohydrates, but they provide a whole lot more.  From iron to protein, magnesium, potassium, calcium, Vitamin B-6, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E, the following is a list of excellent grain choices that can provide some or all of these nutrients to your diet.  Aside from buying these products in their own packaging, you can find them in breads, cereals, and nutrition bars.

⦁ Oats
⦁ Basmati Rice, Black Rice, Wild Rice, Jasmine Rice, Red Rice, Arborio Rice
⦁ Quinoa, Red Quinoa
⦁ Freekeh (Green Durum)
⦁ Sorghum
⦁ Amaranth
⦁ Farro Perlato
⦁ Chia Seeds
⦁ Barley

 

How you mix and match all of the food groups I’ve explained above for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is entirely up to you and your taste buds.  Aside from eating nutritional food and cooking in the healthiest way possible, the only other thing you must consider is how much you’re eating.  When it comes to the above foods, your main concern should be portions and that’s probably going to be the hardest thing to figure out.

My breakfast, which is eaten post-workout, is usually made up of about two cups of whole grain cereal with non-dairy milk and a protein shake and then once I get to work I drink a mixed combination of fruit juice, vegetable juice, and green tea.  Lunch is usually about a cup of granola and a cup of Greek yogurt with a nutrition bar either for brunch or for an afternoon snack.  I always eat about a cup or an appropriate serving size of each of the three food groups listed above for dinner.  My body type, my lifestyle, and my body weight goals determine how much food I consume and the same should be true for you as well.

Data was collected from the following sources:

The National Institutes of Health

The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus

The National Center for Biotechnology Information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Livestrong Foundation

The Macrocosm Perspective

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The Macrocosm Perspective

Siddhartha Gautama taught that in order to see what matters we must first remove the ego from the equation.  Nothing rips apart my ego or sense of self more than the Universe.  The above photo is a compilation of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy in near-infrared, infrared, and x-ray from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, respectively.  As breathtaking as this image is with plumes of dust and gas, the bright star in the foreground, and all the distant stars and galaxies in the background, let’s take a momentary journey and see if we can’t have our consciousness expanded even more…

 

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The second closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, some 4 light years away, meaning it would take us about 4 years traveling at the speed of light to get there.  How fast is that?  Stand in the dark facing a wall and turn on a flashlight, the speed at which that light hits the wall is the speed you’d have to travel at to get to the star in about 4 years time.

Proxima Centauri is a Red Dwarf, which means that when it dies it will not supernova, but instead the process of thermonuclear fusion will fade and as its nuclear core begins to cool it will turn into a Blue Dwarf, then fade into a White Dwarf and eventually become stellar material in space known as a Black Dwarf, a process that will take some three trillion years.  Other stars with more mass are expected to supernova or even hypernova (equal to +100 supernova) anytime in the next million years (perhaps even tomorrow) and include Betelgeuse, Eta Carinae and IK Pegasi.

If that were to happen it would be like having a second sun or full moon in our sky, depending on the star and how far away it is from us.  The largest known star by size is named NML Cygni and the most massive (heaviest) star is R136a1 which also claims the title for being the most luminous known to exist.  Even though it’s the brightest in the known universe, it’s too far away to be the brightest in our night sky.  The visually brightest star from Earth is Sirius.

 

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This diagram shows the stages of a stars life.  Depending on the mass of a star, various things can occur throughout its life-cycle.  At the center of the diagram is the star forming nebula.  All stars come into existence within a nebula, this includes our own star.  In time stars fall away from the nebula clouds in which they are born, their gravitational pull will bring in dust and gas, which in time can form planets.

The above diagram lists examples of stars in each phase.  The phases are listed in white lettering and the real stars that are currently in that phase are listed in yellow lettering. You can see that Proxima Centauri is the example used for a red dwarf star.  Following this star’s path you can see it will become a blue dwarf, and eventually a white dwarf that is no longer active at its nuclear core and thus cooling into what is known as a black dwarf.

 

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In this diagram you can see some of the prominent stars within our arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.  The larger the circle, the larger the star.  You can see that Sirius is the largest star nearest to us, which is why it is the brightest star in our night sky.

 

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We exist within the Milky Way Galaxy, one of more than 50,000 galaxies and dwarf galaxies inside the Virgo Supercluster.  Thanks to the Hubble Telescope, we know there’s about 100 billion galaxies in the known Universe, but this is only based on what we can see with current technology.  In the future we may learn there are billions more.  In the above diagram you see our more prominent and nearby galactic neighbors.

Most of these are smaller galaxies than our own, known as dwarfs.  They are essentially just like larger galaxies, except that they have a lower stellar mass (fewer stars).  You can also see the much smaller Triangulum Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest large galaxy from our own.  Though it appears close in this diagram you have to realize that Andromeda is more than 2.5 million light years away.  Think about that.  It would take more than 2.5 million years to get there while traveling at the speed of light.

The entire Virgo Supercluster stretches for some 100 million light years.  Within that there are some 200 trillion stars.

 

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There’s a tiny little dot of yellow light that you can’t even see unless you zoom in southeast of the massive yellow globe in the center of this image of the Milky Way Galaxy, it’s marked “We Are Here” and that’s where our solar system is.  The Milky Way Galaxy is what’s known as a spiral galaxy due to its shape.  This logarithmic spiraling causes strands of stars, planets, dust, and gas.  Each strand or section is known as an “arm” of the galaxy.  We exist in what is known as the Orion Arm.  All of those tiny lights you see are stars, you can also see the many dust and gas clouds.

That massive ball of yellow light in the center is a cluster of dust and stars.  Inside that cluster is a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius-A.  Compared to our Sun, it is 4 million times larger.  Regular black holes are formed from dying stars, but astronomers still aren’t sure how supermassive black holes are formed.  What we can speculate is that they are the remnants of something that existed before.

Nearly every known galaxy has a supermassive black hole at their galactic center.  If you know what a black hole is, then you know that they have immense gravitational pull, so strong that dust, gas, stars, planets, and even light itself gets pulled in by the event horizon and cannot escape the singularity.

So what happens when objects or light are pulled into the event horizon of a black hole?  Neil Degrasse Tyson describes it as spaghettification, essentially you are stretched on an atomic level.  Ever play with silly putty and pull it apart until it gets really thin?  Well it’s like that but on a molecular scale.  What happens after that is still a mystery, but there are theories.

Based on models and simulations some scientists believe that once atomic bonds are pulled apart by the gravitational intensity and into subatomic particles by the singularity, they are then cast out into the universe as energy.  What kind of energy is not known, but considering that nearly 70% of the known universe exists as dark energy, this may be the fate of all matter and light.

 

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This graphic shows a scale of the mass of objects in space.  If you can remember science class you’ll know that high mass means high density.  As the mass of these objects increases, their density also increases.  The center of a supermassive black hole is extremely dense, often described as infinitely dense.  They defy what we know about the laws of physics as not only is the density of a black hole’s singularity infinite and its size infinitely small, but within that one dimensional point its gravity is infinite and space-time curves infinitely.  This has led some astronomers to speculate that black holes are a point at which this universe connects to another universe that has different laws of physics.

 

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Zooming out even further from the Milky Way and our location within the Virgo Supercluster, you can see where we are located in accordance to other superclusters of galaxies.  All of those little specs represent galaxies.  Several of these superclusters can be viewed from Earth using a telescope.  In all, there are about 10 million superclusters in the known Universe.

You will also notice there are areas labeled as “voids” in the diagram.  Aptly named, these voids are areas of the Universe that are empty of stars and planets.  About 80% of the known Universe is made of these voids in space.

 

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This is a timescale diagram.  One of the most fascinating and mind blowing things about the Universe is that due to its vastness when you look at distant objects you are looking back in time.

The easiest example of this are the stars you see in the sky.  Our own star, the sun, is so far away that it takes about 8 minutes for the light that erupts from it to hit your eyes or the ground at your feet.  If the sun suddenly vanished we wouldn’t know it here on Earth for 8 minutes.

Other stars are so far away that even though you can see them twinkle at night, they may already be gone and the light you’re seeing is not the star itself but the light that came into existence hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of years ago and is traveling through space towards us.

If you could travel the speed of light away from the Earth and had a telescope powerful enough to look back at Earth, the farther you traveled – the further back in time the Earth would appear.  You could essentially travel back in time while traveling away from the Earth and see people living their lives who died hundreds and thousands of years ago, all the way back to the formation of the Earth itself.

The above diagram is showing the oldest known galaxy to exist at more than 11 billion years old, discovered by the Hubble Telescope.    The Universe is estimated to be nearly 14 billion years old.  To see into the Universe is to look into space and time, to travel through the Universe is to travel through space and time.