The Tree of Nothingness

I found a Tree of Knowledge of sorts and have been visiting it daily.

For the last few months I have been spending most of my time in nature.  On a journey several weeks ago I came across one particular tree.  The tree was big and old and, at first glance, looked dead through and through.  Its bark-less form protruded from the ground like a thick rope all frayed at the top.  Upon closer inspection I found that the rope effect came from it being made of four trunks grown together.

Leafless branches, pointy and black with age, flanked its trunk like an armory.   One branch of significant size had broken off and fallen to the ground.  Otherwise the ominous tree stood, content in its frightening display.

I made my way through the fallen portion to investigate the far side of the tree.  From there I could see how it had remained standing.  One of the four trunks that made up its magnificent meta-trunk was still alive!  Bark covered it, and a set of pale roots each the size of a person’s forearm extended into the ground behind.  When I stared up through the forest understory I could just see the branches that held its leaves.

Trees, intimate in their connection to the earth, make timeless metaphors for knowledge.   Knowledge arises from what is hidden (the roots) and branches out in search of energy (the leaves).   In the right habitat, one will grow and even seed further knowledge.  Trees are common to religious stories and other wisdom traditions.  The serpent slithered from a tree in the Garden of Eden.  Siddhartha sat beneath a Bodhi tree where he was visited by his inner demons.  The tenets of mystical Judaism are constructed as a tree.  The tree in the movie Avatar represents our modern fascination with the knowledge of communities and connectedness.

I offer the gnarly tree as a Tree of Nothingness.  Not Sartre style nothingness.  Cosmological nothingness, by which I mean everything other than something that can be directly sensed.

Since the discovery of dark energy, Newton’s contribution to understanding nothingness… dead.  Relativity’s contribution… dead.  Quantum theory’s contribution… dead.  Three dead branches.  Dark energy, a mystery even among physicists, is a challenge to re-conceive nothingness.  It is the live part of the Tree of Nothingness that continues to grow, in spite of the weight of dead ideas around it.

But there is another metaphor, this time historical, that injects itself conveniently into the geometry of the Tree of Nothingness.  Dolpopa, writing in the 14th century, refers to his divergence from the existing Buddhist doctrine as his “fourth council.” (Only three such councils had, or have ever since, been widely recognized.)  In short his doctrine distinguishes emptiness as being not a singular state but a metaphysically rich one.   Buddhists have long focused on the notion of empty-of-self as the ultimate state due to it being the source of Buddha-nature, but Dolpopa noticed that plenty of nothingness exists outside of Buddha-nature itself, and he called it empty-of-other.   He too had discovered dark energy.

I burned what I could from the branch that had fallen from the Tree of Nothingness.  The fire was the hottest fire I think I have ever felt.

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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Recent events in Tibet that brought me to the Blogosphere

As you probably know, there was an earthquake in eastern Tibet on April 14.  I was there when it hit; north of the epicenter, at a site in Amdo (Qinghai Province).  The exact location of the site, referred to in some legends as the Chenpo Terma, had been a mystery to all but a handful of Tibetans for over 300 years.

I had been to the site only the day before with my travel partners.  The experience was transformative (more – much more – about that later).  No booby traps.  No skeletons.  Technical difficulties were all that vexed us, but that’s common in remote places like the Tibetan Plateau.  We planned to go back the next day better prepared, with our solar camera batteries fully charged, weather cooperating.

The quake hit early the next morning.  We were safe, thank goodness, having camped nearby but (for no particular reason) well away from rock formations that toppled or shifted during the quake.  From what we could tell when we returned to the site, the quake destroyed the only entrance, blocking us from going in again, and may well have destroyed its internal structure.

I have really done a lot of soul searching since then.  I already knew quite a bit about the Chenpo Terma’s history and meaning, but the time I had experiencing it first hand, and nailing down the first glimmer of a coherent physics since then, make me feel determined to not let superstition sway me.   The coincidence of the earthquake the day after our entering the Chenpo Terma was too much for many.  Those who allowed us to visit are questioning everything all over again.  Maybe I should have taken a hint.

There are those, some of whom I do not wish to upset and some I wouldn’t mind a bit upsetting, who take task with me trying to make this common knowledge.  I have come to terms with the fact that I may be betraying the “natural order of things.”  It comes down to the difference of my new view of the natural order of things since.

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