Characteristic of ancient sages is their disengagement not only from social affairs and worldly interests but from the entire realm of speculation that fuels engagement. This reticence toward metaphysical speculation is not an anti-intellectualism but a favoring of immediacy and the lessons that can be derived by checking the mind’s restless impulse to categorize and instead giving our context a chance to demonstrate universal principles for us. The sages decline metaphysics and speculation because these are not useful to the task at hand. Even less can that task be couched in lofty terms of visions, miracles, and powers. The task refers to our abilities to disengage from the unnecessary and to cultivate simplicity and non-action.

Jesus points to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field as moral exemplars, the imitation of which is sufficient to attain the sensibility that pertains to us as human beings. No metaphysics, and not even an evocative pantheism or natural philosophy, is needed in order to imitate the other animate or inanimate beings of existence, beings representative of the state or consciousness to which we must reduce our human potential.

This point of view seems retrogressive and counter-intuitive given our intellectual potential. But this is precisely the insight that confounds the worldly and makes it impossible for them to ever achieve the heights of wisdom. Without this counter-intuitive disengagement, without this radical reduction of desire in order to assume the corresponding status of the bird or flower (or star or river), we will be unable to attain the consciousness that is representative of our human nature. Rather, we will be continually misled by society and culture, making the mistake that they and not nature are the source of wisdom.

One anecdote reflecting this point of view from the Zen tradition is the story of the lowly Chan master visited by a famous master who boasted of his miraculous powers. Upon hearing this, the host replied, “I, too, perform miracles. I chop wood, I haul water.”

From the Christian tradition comes an example of this simplicity of spirit that allows for a complete examination of motive, which transcends elements of guilt or self-abasement. Only a couple of stories are known about the desert father Olympius. Here is the relevant one:

A pagan priest came to visit Setis, the great monastic community on the outskirts of the Egyptian desert. By this era, there were not many “pagans”, let alone pagan priests, so we may assume the philosophical and mystical element was strong in this visitor, as will be seen, for Olympius considers him a constructive and not unfriendly man. The priest stays overnight and is a careful observer of the monastic routine.

He asks Olympius if, given the way he lived, he did not receive visions from his god. Olympius replied no. Then the priest said:

When we make a sacrifice to our god, he hides nothing from us but discloses his mysteries. You, giving yourselves so many hardships, vigils, prayer, and asceticism, say that you see nothing? Really, if you see nothing it must be because you have impure thoughts in your heart which separate you from your god. This must be why his mysteries are not revealed to you.

Olympius accepted these words and went to the elders to recount them.

The elders were filled with admiration. They said that these words were quite true, that impure thoughts indeed separate men from God.

Whether the story is apocryphal, intended by elders to shame the monks to humility — like the story of Jesus remarking positively on the faith of the pagan Roman soldier — does not matter. The story describes the moment of insight where words of another seem to construe themselves so as to penetrate a consciousness layered or shielded from reality, from its own heart.

Simplicity and lack of contrivance open the self not just to the fair-minded words of another but to the unspoken words of the birds and flowers, rivers, and stars, to the whole universe which is speaking to us always.What mysteries or revelations or miracles are we expecting when our minds are still clogged with thoughts of our own contrivance, with the flotsam of noise emitted from social life, by the impurities of speculation and ruminations that are only folly and arrogance? Is it not enough of a miracle to live, breathe, haul water, listen to the birds of the air and see the flowers of the field?


Tantrism originally referred to esoteric practices, practices that ordinary laypeople would not pursue. Tantric practices were what the shaman needed to attain and interpret visions, or Tibetan monks and Indian sadhus for visualization, internal generation of heat (tummo) or chod, or even what religious Taoists needed in order to perfect martial arts.

The concept of tantrism in this light may be tentatively extended to western and scriptural traditions as ascetic practices such as fasting, vigils, prayer cycles, even self-flagellation. They are not good equivalents, but at any rate, the separation from the consciousness of laypeople is the functioning principle.

But tantrism also came to be identified with the “left hand.” Proponents of the left hand have identified the left (versus right) as the feminine, the realm of Shakti. Always men, they introduced contraries, opposites or perverse counterparts to the esoteric practices cited (incompletely) above. Their practices are deliberate in opposing collective wisdom traditions with practices that oppose them, such as use of alcohol, meat-eating, and formulaic sex. Whatever the anthropological origins, it seems more probable to have arisen from late contrivances (certainly as late as 5th-century C.E. India).

Not that a body of theory was ever needed to justify left hand practices. In the Western world these are the chief focus of prurient interest, of public voyeurism, of obsession with scandal. And predictably but not exclusively, religious authorities are the center of such scandals in the USA: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Rajneesh ashram, the San Francisco Zen Center sex scandal, the Krishna Consciousness murder plots, the sexual scandals of Catholic clergy and high-profile evangelical Christian preachers … the list in the USA alone goes on and on.

The West has always enjoyed the presence of the devil more than the presence of godliness. Having Milton, Marlowe, and Goethe pioneer versions of Satan as elements of tragedy or chaos began the long media career of a personified left hand. Today the popular mind demands the necessity of scandal, ably presented non-stop by books and media. How much better has the Western world refined the left hand versus the contrived and labored naughtiness of Asian tantrism.

But the artificial separation of right hand and left hand, while readily echoed in nature and the universe, is not a fruitful source for beginning a spiritual path. It is the veil that blinds us, the obdurate appearance that binds. Bleak enough are the opposites we perceive in life: black and white, day and night, life and death.

Subtlety emerges only when we realize not the dichotomy but the interdependence: ignorance and knowledge, wisdom and foolishness, ying and yang, being and nothingness. Who will draw the line between one and the other?

Only with interdependence of our supposed opposites does the true challenge emerge of sufficiently disengaging from things to allow a perspective. Perspective allows for appreciation, for a creative response, for a reconciling of appearance and reality, of permanence and evanescence.

The path of Gautama Buddha is held in such esteem as a biography because it dips deeply into all of these tempestuous experiences of pleasure, power, disillusionment, extremes of asceticism, and — finally — a breakthrough. The breakthrough is just the parting of foliage to reveal the path, the very beginning of the path. From there we need not look back.

Tantrism as esoteric practice was a carefully developed science of sorts, with counterparts in the West. The left hand emerged not to rectify some lack of balance but to play the role of the imp of the perverse, to justify those who scorned a path that was not based on their notion of bodily sensation.

Putting on false robes is emblematic of false tantrism. The brothel-haunting Ikkyu, 14-century Japanese poet, donned black robes to celebrate the rite of sex. Followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho, the Indian “sex guru,” as he was called, donned saffron robes to play at sadhus.

It seems more honest to just admit the desire to pursue pleasures of the left hand without hypocrisy than to dress it up in the veil of esotericism and alternative wisdom. The left hand is a path from which it is difficult to return, for there isn’t much time and the sun is already dipping into the horizon.


Almost nothing is known about Akinobo, an 18th-century Japanese monk, except the curiosity of his death. He is counted one of those prescient Japanese masters who foretold his death and marked it with a death poem — except that Akinobo borrowed the poem, although it came to describe his own death nevertheless.

Akinobo was born of the samurai class but became a monk and lived in a hut on the temple grounds of a city with which he had no other connection. He lived as a hermit in thoroughgoing simplicity and poverty, begging a little charcoal in winter to keep himself warm. He was known to have no kin.

It is said that Akinobo met the famous haiku master Basho on two occasions. During their first encounter, the two exchanged not a word. After their second meeting, probably similar, Basho wrote a poem about the song of the cicada revealing nothing of its impending death.

Indeed, Akinobo said little up to that fateful moment. The poem he quoted referred to the distinction in Japanese culture (really, what exists everywhere) between auspicious days and unfavorable days. The first three days of the New Year are considered fortunate; the succeeding days are not. Akinobo recited his (borrowed) poem to his friend Rito, who was visiting on the fourth day of the first month.

The fourth day
of the new year
What better day
to leave the world?

With that, Rito reports, Akinobo fell dead.

The point of the story is not to celebrate prescience or miracles or even intuitions about oneself. The content of the poem reveals the point, namely, that no day should be considered more auspicious than another.

Out of politeness we can defer to the foibles of culture and let others celebrate their “good” days, like their “good” fortune. We can watch them chase after the days of the ephemeral calendar. Later, we can stifle smugness at their fear of “bad” days, like their avoidance of “bad” fortune. We can watch them flee after the bad days of the same ephemeral calendar.

Like good and bad weather, good or bad days are projections of our moods, habits, and acculturation. They are the demands of our weakness for a cycle of meaning outside of ourselves and nature. Perhaps, like Akinobo, I am borrowing a poem that already exists unread by me or just vaguely forgotten but the point can be made succinctly:

Good days
bad days
no difference!

Ferality and human nature

The existence of feral children poses an interesting challenge to our conception of human nature. The feral child reflects not only the tenuousness of our ability to learn abstractions that make us human but also the fragility of our emotions and creative efforts. What is missing in the feral child is the element of socialization that connects the inner and outer worlds.

Feral children have seldom been born mentally or physically handicapped. Children who were and were then exposed to die clearly did not survive, nor could they. Rather, feral children have been evicted from their homes by abusive parents or have of their own volition fled them. Such would have been the case of the famous wild child Victor in 1790’s France, documented by contemporaries and made famous by the François Truffaut film L’Enfant Sauvage or The Wild Child. Occasionally children were kidnapped by animals, as in the stories of Amala and Kamala of India kidnapped by wolves from the field where their mothers worked, and then, socialized by animals, became feral.

The great question is whether such children can at all generate human functionality after a certain number of years of ferality. Brain scans of the extremely abused Genie (not really a feral child in the sense of living in nature) showed virtually no left-side brain development, in other words, no capacity for logical, symbolic, verbal processing or communication. This is a condition of autism and mental disability but is not the original condition of the child who becomes a feral child.

Apparently, the brain functions that demarcate the child as “human” atrophy in the wild, and become irrelevant. Yet if a “normal” developed person lived in the wild, one may speculate if a human being would lose these logical and communicative functions, would go from an appreciation of nature to a certain ferality.

That seems not the case for the cultivated solitary who has in fact nurtured those aspects of the brain to a fine degree of harmony with both left-side brain and nature, as in the famous hermits. That they do not exhibit the superficial conventions of socialization and etiquette does not matter. What is true is that functions of both sides of the brain are retained and nurtured. Nature complements the thought-processes of the mind, and honed to a perfect relationship dispose of the necessity to consult society and culture for insight.

Granted that the obvious evolution of socialization among human beings brought the many characteristics we call human into existence, it did not resolve all of our shortcomings. As Rousseau pointed out, the fate of the individual may not be better off in society than it would have been in the wild. Admittedly, the feral child will never develop characteristics we define as human, or develop them well when “rescued” from the wild. And as Rousseau notes in the preface to his novel Emile, or An Education (1762), “a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest.” A child left on his own in the wilderness will develop only the animal nature that is at the core of our evolutionary development.

What then of socialization, that has still left us with undecipherable instincts and drives which nature knows how to channel in its animals but which humans do not know how to assess and control? Rousseau does not see socialization, given its present form, as yielding much better results for the person than being left in nature.

Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are plunged, would stifle nature in a person and put nothing in her place. She would be like a sapling by chance sown in the midst of the highway, bent hither and thither and soon crushed by the passers-by.

Rousseau is more emphatic in his celebrated opening phrases of Emile.

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. Man forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another’s fruit. He confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions. He mutilates his dog, his horse, and his slave. He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous; he will have nothing as nature made it, not even man himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master’s taste like the trees in his garden.

For Rousseau the perversion of human nature by society is only offset by the close nurturing of a kind and attentive mother, who alone can engender the psychological values that will make the child perceptive, thoughtful, and ultimately independent and free. Thus we come round again to the cause of ferality in the feral child, namely the absence of a nurturing mother — or, rather, in the case of feral children, the absence of a certain kind of nurturing mother, namely, a human.

The important point, however, is not just the absence of such a mother but the superfluousness of society and culture to the developmental process. For all its complexity, society and culture cannot compensate for the conditions and emotions Rousseau describes. Only in the deep psychological values of self-image and other-worldliness engendered in the social bond of mother and child (as so many psychologists from Freud on have repeated) can the individual emerge with the potential for the perennial and benign virtues we associate with the best wisdom.

And this relationship can be entirely substitutive or symbolic, if one wishes — say, mother as religious entity or community, as Gaia, as surrogate parent, etc., though this can have no efficacy until at a later stage of development that requires a different emotional effort not the same as the biological.

Ferality is not at issue for the child in society, but elements of the bad aspects of human nature will always haunt some individuals more than others. Meanwhile, the rest of society takes on culture and authority as its mother-source. We need to observe closely in our selves where the absence of nurture is acute and at the same time how society and culture are not sources of nurture intending to cultivate our true selves. We can cultivate our natural selves, but only with nature, the only primordial source of nurture, not with the contrivances of human culture and society.