Sometimes a cabal is a good thing.

Cabals are groups based on secrets. They’re usually small.  More may make merrier, but more does not make for better secret keeping.  Controlling ideas of the big brother variety or protective notions of the political or superhero variety fuel some real-life as well as fictional cabals.   Radical ideas like the Dead Poet’s Society or esoteric interpretations of existing thought such as mystical Judaism fuel others.  Thus cabals are often formed by people who find themselves in positions of power but are concerned others may misinterpret their ideals.  But they may also be formed by ordinary folk who fear or worry for the destructive or transformative power of their cabal’s ideals.  The powerless and fearless simply conglomerate and rebel, for better or worse.

But keeping secrets is slippery ethical territory.   At least when interpreted from the outside.  Obfuscation presents a sort of ethical hurricane where the weather in the eye – that is, the internal conviction of the cabal-ers – is necessarily fine.  Anyone who encounters the cabal’s lies, cover-ups, protection, and the like has to wrestle more or less knowingly with the mysterious turmoil in its wake.

Perhaps even more interesting than the ethics of cabals (if that’s possible) is the metaphysics of obfuscation.  On the most basic level, how can we expect to define a standard for reality or (worse) attribute causative powers to observation knowing that some information is hidden on purpose?  Or more subtly, there’s the question of the nature of the reality of what is possible.  Cabals are self-appointed protectors of the possible.  How can they harness it in this way if the possible does not have a metaphysical status?  Primitivism grants such a status.

Cabal-ers always believe themselves to be cabal-ing for good reason.  If it’s a selfless one at least to some degree, the ethical scales could easily tip in their favor.  The metaphysically real possibilities they protect are safe within their confines.

But what about when a cabal comes under pressure to un-cabal, to reveal.  Like a dormant seed exposed to moisture and heat, the possible moves beyond the confines of its protective husk to interact with the rest of its surroundings.   Does the plant that results enhance the surrounding ecosystem, or disrupt it harmfully?  Of course it depends.  Real or not, ethical or not, sometimes a cabal is a good thing.

Good news mixed with fear

Double-slit experiment

I heard from Chonyi a few days ago.  He had good news.  The Chenpo Terma site we explored in April just one day before the earthquake is intact for now.  The entry to the underground portrait room had been blocked, but a few dedicated and brave individuals, working slowly and in secret as usual, cleared away the collapsed rock and were able to enter once again.  They even returned with the naljorpa who lives nearby to renew the blessings and protections on the site.

This development was so great, but it meant I had to soul-search all over again.  I have been paralyzed, not knowing what to do, or not do.  The location and the secrets behind it and the relic too have been hidden for over three hundred and fifty years.  Events (like the earthquake) and some people’s bad intentions keep conspiring to keep them hidden.  Am I just an overreaching American, a Scooby-Doo style meddler?  People, nice people, are telling me I should let this lie, that I am making things worse – for myself and for their efforts to protect what is precious to them.

Then I turned on Coldplay.  Listened to the song “Fix You.”  “Lights will guide you home,” he crooned.  And yes, tears did stream down my face.

I keep talking about physicists perpetuating dark, insidious theories about reality.   Keep the lights out… just question the darkness!  I preach.  But we are all susceptible to its most basic form.  Everyone experiences fear, some groups just build on it with fancy names and elaborate theories is all.  Others of us conspire with it to hide a tough reality we are reluctant to face.   My Tibetan friends have made a lifetime of commitments over generations to hide the Chenpo Terma, and they are afraid to let go.

Light is bound to reach us in the darkness.  When we wait for it rather than reflexively turning on the self-conscious light of limited understanding, perhaps more so even,  it may pain us, it may surprise us, but it will slowly warm and enliven us again.  Our first thought in this new state should be, If there is a god, it is a Cosmic God.

Personally, my second thought was, Repeat to yourself, mantra-style, The paradox of revealing nothingness. The paradox of revealing nothingness. The paradox of revealing nothingness.

Preferable to The paradox of preaching hypocrisy, which is what I was toying with these last few days.

Ours is a paradox, in which nothingness may be revealed and somethingness is certainly hidden.  I can only promise for now that the motive remains.

The Relic

Until a year ago I had NO idea there were intricate international, government and law enforcement bodies dedicated to protecting old stuff.   Registries of things-people-might-want-to-steal and valuable-stuff-that-doesn’t-look-it abound, including registries of already looted relics and art.  In principle I’m glad people care about history, prize beauty, etc.   I’m less impressed by rich people wanting to protect or even escalate the value of their abstract investments. I’m really frustrated at being forced to the wrong end of this good-intentioned scheme that has no independent system of justice.  Those in positions of power get to use it to their advantage.  Period.  Oftentimes they’re working for good and playing fair, but when it’s for bad, too bad.

When my brother John and I were given a relic in 2008 while on a trip to China and Tibet I never imagined I would be lamenting such a thing.

(Wondering about my political views on Tibet… see my Anti-political Disclaimer.)

The relic was taken from me and Brooklyn (John’s widow) at a physics conference in Turkey a year later.  Brooklyn began an invited talk on the relic and its relationship to John’s unconventional observations of physics, and ten minutes in UNESCO’s cultural property police, who were waiting in the wings, confiscated it.    I suspect Dr. Bernie Ghes orchestrated the whole thing.   He’s been wanting to get his hands on it ever since John’s death.  Death to the relic too.  I’m guessing his wish has come true and it’s been bagged and labeled into oblivion.

Our gift was stolen from us by bad guy good guys.

Here’s a stylized rendering of the carvings found on and WITHIN the relic.   Again, we never dreamed it would be stolen and have little record of it other than what we remember.  My friend Peter created this last summer from sketches and descriptions I provided.

Tibetan relic series of carvings

The relic looked basically like a dingy, lumpy brick.  It was hundreds of years old and apparently made of rock that is common but sacred in Tibet, not a man-made material like metal or ceramic.  “Positive” and “negative” carvings, in the pattern you see here in the top frame, decorated opposite faces of the brick.  The patterns of the bottom two frames were visible as carvings only when the brick was pried open at its two center seems.  So in each case there was a carving and its “negative” on opposite faces.  A three-dimensional puzzle of sorts.

Another friend Cam, a philosophy grad student, was the one who noticed the seams along the uncarved sides and proposed prying at them.   Luckily, at the moment we had butter lamps at our disposal, and that did the trick getting the old joined together pieces to release.

John never saw the relic open so he only saw 1/3 of its content.  Relic aside, he was fixated on wave-particle duality.  So the pattern he saw (the first frame) on the relic bolstered his fascination (though at least one friend has joked it looks like a snake with a tumor).  What he always described when he talked about the relic was its, how do I put it, magical properties.  He claimed that the relic changed in unpredicted ways in different types of light.   He died the same night he took it out for a moonlight ride – to see if he might discover different properties in that kind of light.

Early on I was more interested in establishing connections to the relic’s origin.   The discovery of the embedded carvings opened up a whole new question in my mind of the significance of the set of carvings though.  Recently, with the visit to the Chenpo Terma, the two perspectives finally converged.

The carvings on the relic and “portrait” in the Chenpo Terma are not connected to the existing understanding of Dolpopa’s 14th century central doctrines (on emptiness) in an obvious way.  Still, both terma, literally “wisdom treasures,” are ascribed significance by those who know his doctrines well.  Which leads me to conclude they may have significance all their own.  Could they represent cosmological extensions of Dolpopa’s doctrinal work?  It’s entirely possible that esoteric gnostics actively pursued such insights up until the middle of the 17th century.   Not coincidentally, that is was when Tibet’s civil war ended, and all but Gelukpa (the dominant “yellow hat” sect headed by the Dalai Lama) doctrine was banished.

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Description and sketch of the Chenpo Terma (pre-earthquake)

What can I say.  This doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing, though in some cases that’s what we had to do to see our way around!  Imagine Tibetan buddhas and demons in the blank areas (and you’ll just have to imagine what my unskilled drawings of those would look like).   What I’ve drawn were the unusual parts,  unusual because they are so different than designs traditionally found in Tibetan holy sites.

The wall decorations, including the parts I sketched, were well preserved, and easy to see – except that our battery-powered light sources got low and we had to rely on torch-light until we were ready for our ascent.  The actual size of what you see in the drawing was maybe as high as a two-story building.  Big.  The lines of the center “starburst” were made up of mostly of red coral and turquoise.  Our Tibetan guide Chonyi described it as the “jewel.”  Because of the stone inlay design it did bear strong resemblance to the jewelry common to Tibet.   The white “wave” segments away from the center were apparently made of carved bone, probably yak bone.   And the gold dots you see were just that – dinner-plate-sized protrusions covered with precious metals.

The room where we found it was a sort of portrait hall with one prominent wall (featuring this design).  The other walls tapered steeply in an efficient and cautious geometry.  The ceiling, walls, and floor of the cave-like room were made of earth and covered with some kind of natural plaster.  Stones were embedded in the floor but their formations seemed random.  Hard to examine because cave debris had settled on it.  Apparently the ancient Naljorpa, or wizard, who protects the site from an external cave nearby, is not also a housekeeper.

An inscription, credited to Dolpopa Sheyrab Gyalten and in Tibetan, of course, read

“The ground of emptiness is naturally noncomposite radiant light”

Another inscription, outside the entrance to the hall, was a dedication.  It read

“Erected in 1633 by Taranatha’s volunteer army with the mission that the wisdom treasure [terma] inside be protected during hostile times ahead”

We were able to make rubbings of the inscriptions, but it will take some time to render them here.  I only hope the interior hall, which has never to my knowledge been photographed or preserved in any way, was not destroyed in the earthquake.

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