Alexandra David-Neel explores the Mystery of Tibet


Magic and Mystery in Tibet – Alexandra David-Neel (1929)

            It is difficult to imagine that just 100 years ago the ancient land of Tibet located between China, India, and Mongolia was as little understood by the Western world as the surface of the Moon.  Its seclusion among the massive Himalayan mountain range led to many fantastic and seemingly supernatural stories regarding the people and gods that inhabited Tibet.  Rumors of forbidden cities, mystical monks, and ever-present deities could not be verified, or proven false, due to the inability of westerners to visit the country.  In the early 20th century, one indefatigable woman, having studied esoteric religions in India and Japan, sought to visit the “Lamaists” as she calls them. These “Lamaists” are the Tibetan followers of Buddhism, a philosophy more than a religion, which was brought to Tibet from India.  Purely through her devotion to learning and her bravery in the face of the unknown, Alexandra David-Neel managed to not only visit Tibet, but also live and study among the monks and Lamas for years.  Amazingly, she did this in her mid-40’s. This book recounts her experience with the magical/mystical side of Tibet and is one of many she wrote on the subject.

            Before digging into the contents of this book, it is good to remember the context of its creation.  The late 1800’s to the early 1900’s saw a huge increase in “spiritualism” and the idea that the dead could be contacted by the living.  Thousands of scam artists and crooks used this to fleece good, although gullible, people out of their hard-earned money.  Many organizations, such as the Theosophists, were created to push the exploration of esoteric thought, and the attempt to gather ancient knowledge forgotten by the “western” world.  Alexandra David-Neel was one such woman.  She explored many facets of spiritualism, theosophy, freemasonry, Hinduism, and finally Buddhism.  As an educated woman, she also understood the role psychology and the workings of the human mind had in determining the experiences we have as we live our lives.  Ms. David-Neel, after traveling through northern India, felt drawn to visit forbidden Tibet, and she succeeded in doing so.  After years of travel in the Orient, she began to write about her experience.  These books, of which Magic and Mystery in Tibet is the second one, were the first non-sensational accounts of Tibet and its people that reached the Western world.  While initially the critics doubted her experiences in Tibet, these books and the ideas contained within helped shape much of the counterculture and metaphysical world that arose in the 20th century.

            My favorite aspect of this book is that it reads not like a travelogue but more like a personal diary of Ms. David-Neel’s experiences and her reflections upon those experiences.  She shares the stories told to her by the many people she meets and explores the development of Tibetan Buddhism as a separate growth of Indian Buddhism.  Her acceptance of those she meets, and the respect and wisdom she brings to those meetings, make a large impression on the monks and Lamas she discourses with.  They accept her automatically as a student who wishes to learn.  This openness is not a result of Ms. David-Neel’s efforts, but instead comes directly from Tibetan Buddhist belief that anyone who wishes to can join a monastery and look for a spiritual teacher/guide. 

            David-Neel describes the ways a Buddhist monastery differs from the western idea of a monastery.  In a Catholic monastery, for instance, everyone is taught the same ideas, and are expected to accept them as literal truth solely because of the authority of “god.”  In Buddhist monasteries, it is up to the individual to determine if teachings have value to them, if they truly “believe” something, or whether they will proceed with the education.  Many regular people join monasteries but keep their esoteric learning to a minimum.  Others go deeper and deeper into the mystic truths of Buddhism, led only by their curiosity, and their master’s individual guidance.  It is truly an individual pursuit, attempting to accomplish a universal goal of oneness with existence.  As many Buddhists believe in the near-eternal cycle of death and rebirth, there is no pressing urgency to proceed with one’s education.  If a student spends all their life pondering basic ideas, it is because he needs to do so to prepare for a future life where larger ideas or more immersive theology will begin to make sense to the student.  The ultimate goal is to stop this round of death and re birth, and to successfully and completely dissolve one’s ego so that, upon death, you join the energy of the Universe, instead of being re-born.  This is called Nirvana.

            Alexandra David-Neel explains that many in the West think that one must endure nearly endless cycles of birth and rebirth before one can achieve Nirvana.  However, learned Lamas do not think this.  They say that everyone, regardless of your spiritual training, has an opportunity after death to go into the light and enter Nirvana, dissolving one’s ego.  Most people, according to the Lamas, see the light and are faced with this decision after death but they experience only fear and doubt.  This drives them to avoid the light and instead head back to our “sphere” and be re-born again.  Part of the spiritual training given to these monks is how to be peaceful and calm so that, upon death, they can dissolve into Nirvana. 

            There is so much more explored in this book.  From describing the day-to-day lives of regular Tibetans, to sharing personal anecdotes of Ms. David-Neel’s psychic explorations, to the descriptions of the beautiful Tibetan countryside, this book has provided me with countless ideas to think about.  I will seek out Alexandra David-Neel’s other works, as I enjoyed this one immensely.  There is nothing quite like a first-hand account from a place strange to me to get my mind flowing.  I would love to visit Tibet one day.  For now, Ms. David-Neel’s books will be my travel.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: https://www.theosophy.world/sites/default/files/ebooks/magic-and-mystery-in-tibet1931.pdf )


The Hulk, My Childhood Favorite, Returns to Wreck Shop


The Immortal Hulk – Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, et al. (2018-Present)

            I have always loved reading comic books.  Towards the back pages of the comics there would be a list of every title that had an issue printed that month.  There were so many different ones.  Who could read, much less buy, every single one that Marvel or DC Comics would put out?  I eventually settled in on a few that I followed, buying their issues when I could.  These included the Uncanny X-Men, Thor, Batman, and my favorite, The Incredible Hulk. 

            Most people, even those who do not read comic books, know of Bruce Banner and his alter-ego The Hulk.  To many, Bruce Banner and the Hulk are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, two sides of a coin.  The Hulk is the unseen horror underneath a seemingly normal, and brilliant nuclear physicist that comes out whenever Bruce is angered.  This does not seem like much to base a very long-running monthly comic book on, much less the countless spin-offs of the Hulk throughout all entertainment media, but I found it fascinating and read the Hulk for years.

            The Hulk was different that other superheroes in many ways, not the least of which is in their origin.  Bruce Banner was working on a gamma bomb test when some unsuspecting teenager wandered onto the testing grounds.  He risked his life to run out and save the kid, only to catch the full brunt of the gamma ray blast.  He became irradiated and his body grew to a monstrous size with equal strength.  The Hulk was not Bruce.  He spoke as if he was a child sometimes and Bruce could not control the Hulk “persona.”  Whereas the X-Men were born mutants and outcasts, Batman was orphaned by crime, devoting himself to crimefighting, Thor was a Norse god in charge of protecting Midgard (Earth), and Superman an alien from a destroyed planet protecting his new home, Bruce Banner was a genius damaged and ruined by an act of pure altruism.  It was pitiable, and regrettable, and ended up unleashing one of the most powerful beings in existence to terrorize an unsuspecting world.

            As with all reading habits, I moved on to other comics, and other books.  I would keep up with some of the developments in my favorite comics and really enjoyed the Planet Hulk storyline.  Recently I came across a new series of monthly Hulk books called The Immortal Hulk.  Written by Al Ewing, it was a rebirth of the original horror themes found in the Incredible Hulk, pushed to amazing new heights.   It takes off from the character development done on the Hulk in the recent decades and from the start is written, drawn, and paced to keep the heart pumping and the blood rushing.  I was not ready for the intensity of each issue!  I cannot give away any plot points, as I hate that, but I will say that Bruce lives during the day, while the night belongs to the Hulk, and the story of how Bruce comes back from death sets off the entire run. 

            Each issue builds on the next and the implications for many of the other gamma-powered beings in the Marvel universe come to pass.  It was so cool to catch up on classic Hulk characters that I remembered reading about in my youth.  The artwork is its own type of awesome and reminded me of the best horror comics of the past.  Each page is full of lurid detail.  This is a horror comic, as the Hulk should be, and not a comic book for the little kids.  It may also not be for someone who is coming to the Hulk as a blank slate.  The Immortal Hulk builds upon all previous Hulk lore, which for a comic freak like me, is perfect.  Highly Recommended.


Finding Meaning and Purpose, even in the worst of times, is what makes us Human


Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl (1946)

            In the past 6 years that I have published reviews of the books I read, there have been a few that dealt with the horrors of war as seen by people held in prison, concentration, and extermination camps.  In each narrative, the brutality and base evil that humans are capable of seems overwhelming, and unavoidable, but there are always people who manage to keep some semblance of humanity burning inside them, allowing them to continue to seek life where others seek oblivion.  This goes for both the oppressed and the oppressors.  Viktor Frankl was a doctor whose entire family ended up in the Nazi concentration camps.  Out of dozens of extended family members, only he and his brother survived the horror.  This book is not only an accounting of his experiences, but of how they shaped what he calls Logotherapy, his method of psychiatric therapy focused on the Search for Meaning.  Logos means “ideas”.  This therapy focuses on helping us reframe how we see the universe, our place in it, and the meaning found within.

             Viktor Frankl reached a very deep understanding of what it is that makes us human, and what keeps us moving forward in spite of insurmountable odds, or oppressive horror.  Because of this, he saw that what truly drives humanity to neurosis and makes life unbearable is the lack of meaning, especially during suffering.  In the early 1900’s, Dr. Sigmund Freud saw the source of man‘s neuroses as mainly rooted in failed Sexual development.  Other prominent psychiatrists of the era saw our neuroses as developing from our will to Power, especially what happens when the human is powerless over their own life.  Viktor Frankl realized something else far more important and pervasive.  Most human neurosis arise from the lack of Meaning in our lives.  He understood, and saw clear evidence of this in the concentration camps, that a human can survive, and maybe even grow, in the middle of endless suffering if only there is something which can provide meaning to their existence. 

            Some people find meaning in religion or spirituality.  Others find it in living for someone, like a child, or a lover.  Some of the people who managed to survive with their minds intact found comfort in helping those around them.  It does not matter what it is that provides Meaning in our life, as long as it is honest to ourselves and exists apart from us.  Humans need to know that there is something out there bigger than our suffering.  Dr. Frankl quotes Nietzsche often, stating the following: “Those who have a ‘Why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘How.’”

            Dr. Frankl provides examples of individuals from the camps who each found their own reason for why to continue living.  One woman, suffering from Typhus, kept a peaceful air about her.  When asked about it, she mentioned that she talked to the willow tree outside their barracks, and that the tree talked back to her.  When asked what the tree said, she stated that the Tree told her, “I am Life.  Life continues.  Life is eternal,” and that these thoughts alone helped her deal with her slow, agonizing death.  She could not even see the tree, just a few branches through a dirty window.  That was enough for her to avoid true despair. True despair kills, and it kills quickly.  Viktor Frankl describes how they could all tell 24-36 hours ahead of time when a fellow inmate would die.  They saw the signs, clear as day, that this individual’s will to live had disappeared.  Perhaps they smoked their last saved cigarette.  Perhaps they failed to wake up on time and slept all day.  Perhaps they stopped talking their usual patter.   In the rigorously regimented routines of the death camps, any deviation was noted.  It was not the pain that killed these people.  It was not the starvation, the beatings, or the terror.  It was that they saw no further reason to continue living, to continue breathing and waking up.  Frankly, this was the end goal of these extermination camps, to make the poor people inside realize they were subhuman and deserved to be exterminated.

            The second part of this book details Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy, and the way that helping people by adjusting their views on life and its meaning and purpose.  He describes many of his patients who had severe neuroses, and who he helped through Logoterapy. They received help in adjusting what they saw as the Meaning of their lives.  He also describes how the lack of Meaning causes neurosis. 

            For example, Viktor Frankl describes a study done among European and American university students.  The study asked the students to describe their level of boredom, to try and correlate why boredom leads to feelings of nihilism (that nothing matters, that there is no meaning anywhere).  About 12% of European students felt their life was meaningless.  About 60% of American students felt this way.  In Europe, social, familial, and regional ritual and tradition provide a framework by which European students frame their lives and the meaning of their lives.  These traditions do not exist in America.  Sixty percent of American students felt they had no real framework by which to assign meaning to themselves and their existence.  When a human feels disconnected from their surroundings, apathy abounds.  Nothing matters.  Alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual carelessness and deep rage fester.  Meaning is lost.

Why get up and go to work?  Why bother cleaning my house?  Why bother caring about anything at all?  These are all deep existential questions, and Logotherapy aims to help the individuals answer that for themselves, allowing them to understand that our lives are always a part of something greater, even if it all seems hopeless.  Even the least of us can find meaning greater than ourselves.  Think of the homeless man that still finds a way to feed a stray cat or dog.  Think of the political prisoner who uses their letter writing to achieve a greater end than just their release.  Think of the woman who suffer through a life with a horrible man, but still manage to provide their children with love and a home and a loving mother.  Why we live is more important than How we live.  We are all responsible for how we behave, regardless of the situation.  Even in the brutality of Auschwitz concentration camp, there were still some guards, although few in number, who stayed human, who still sought to protect the inmates, who would go out of their way, risking punishment, to provide some sick men extra bread.  They did not do these things because they thought they could change the system, but because it would make them INHUMAN not to do these things.  The very best of us live our lives for the greater good. 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl

(This book is available for download as a PDF file here: https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/mans-search-for-meaning.pdf )


I love Etymology and Etymology Loves Me


Dictionary of Word Origins – John Ayto (1991)

            I have always enjoyed learning about the sources of words and the changes in meaning and use over the centuries.  As I am Puerto Rican, I was raised speaking Spanish, and when our family moved to Texas I learned the English language.  I found it very interesting how English, more so than most languages, is a conglomerate of borrowed words and terminology drawn from a very wide range of languages, both dead and alive.

            While many dictionaries also include small sections on etymology, this Dictionary of Word Origins shares the known origins, as well as the possible origins, of over 8,000 English words.  This is in no way an exhaustive list, as the average English speaker uses around 15,000 English words.  The highly literate can have over 100,000 words in their vocabulary.  Sticking to just 8,000 words allows each origin to be fully explored.

            This book not only provides the immediate precursor words to a specific term, but also explores the evolution of the word from its earliest source.  English owes a lot to the Germanic and Latin languages, but has created something different.  Sometimes words are misused, due to similarities in pronunciation.  Other times the very earliest uses of a word are lost in ancient time.  Basic, and seemingly universal words like mama, papa, baby, etc., seem to arrive as phonetic sounds, first uttered by developing children.  The ongoing creation of the English language is a fractal thing, and it allows for the constant evolution that has seen English rise as the international language of business and politics.

            Language is a tricky thing.  We try to be specific in what we say, but words never have just one meaning.  We try to force meaning on words, leaving us poorer for it.  Knowing about a person’s history and background helps inform us greatly, and the same goes for knowing the origins of words we all use daily.  Many writers discuss how they use words very carefully, seeking specific meanings and shades of definition.  On the other hand, many people use words haphazardly, unaware of the many differing messages their words can actually convey.  Books such as this one are a boon for anyone who loves language and the magic unlocked when we share words and ideas together.

            Language, or the use of vocal/visual symbols to communicate, is humanity’s greatest invention, and allowed the development of everything we value as Human.  Society, culture, learning, and history are all better served because we can all communicate through space and time using symbols.  Just as I love reading a work from 100 years ago and letting the author-chosen symbols lead me to new adventures or education, I also hope that by writing and sharing these reviews of the books I read I am somehow connecting to future readers.  Hopefully the internet-webs will still be around in 100 years.  It is a great thrill to imagine someone reading my words in 2120 and gaining something from it.  We all stand on the shoulders of all of those that came before us.

(This book can be purchased from the publisher : https://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/arcade-publishing/9781611450538/dictionary-of-word-origins/ )


Frank Miller took Daredevil to New Heights/Depths

Daredevil: Gangwar! – Frank Miller (1981)

            These times of pandemic sequestration and isolation give a great opportunity to re-discover old favorites unread for too many years.  While digging through my older comic books I came across Daredevil: Gangwar!, a trade paperback from the mid-1980’s that collected a Frank Miller-penned and illustrated run of Daredevil issues which have since become iconic, and from which much of the current Daredevil lore is drawn, including the interesting but flawed television series of a few years back.

            These issues were published between 1981 and 1982.  Until the mid-80’s it was very uncommon for Marvel to reprint comics as trade paperbacks.  I am glad they did, because it makes for great reading when an entire story arc is bound in one volume.  I found this in a bookstore sometime around 1986, and I remember vividly how brutal and raw the story was compared to the other comic books I read at the time which consisted of large, operatic stories involving whole galaxies or the destruction of the Universe.

Daredevil’s world was much smaller, dirtier, and scary.  It was a gritty dose of realism in a world of archetypal superheroes. I was maybe 13-14 years old, and Frank Miller’s take on Daredevil and the world he inhabits made a big impression.  At the time I did not know who Frank Miller was.  I had yet to read his seminal Dark Knight Returns comics.  All I knew was that the artwork in these Daredevil issues was something visually new, and that the writing was hard-boiled in the extreme.

Daredevil is a local crime-fighter.  He patrols a dilapidated area of New York called Hell’s Kitchen, seeking to protect the vulnerable and innocent from the ravages and horrors to be found in poor and neglected areas of wealthy cities.  He defended them by day in his alter-ego of Matt Murdock, attorney at law.  At night he would use his abilities to do what he could, with the constant knowledge that it was likely a futile effort.

In these comics, Frank Miller expands Daredevil’s scope, and his world, by introducing him to one of the most iconic enemies in the Marvel comics universe, The Kingpin.  Daredevil’s work was largely under the radar of the powerful and amoral Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk.  He was normally concerned with much larger issues and situations than Daredevil.  However, once you come into the sights of someone like Wilson Fisk, there is no turning back. 

Daredevil has always been one of the more morally conflicted superhero titles at Marvel Comics.  He does not have the luxury of flying in, saving the day, and then leaving just as quickly.  He lives where he works.  He interacts with those he protects, and with those he fights, regularly.  He knows Hell’s Kitchen, having grown up there, better than anyone else.  If he cannot help people in his costumed form, he does so as a lawyer.  It is an exhausting life full of morally grey choices.  Gangwar! contains several such dilemmas, and it is to Frank Miller’s credit that his dark take on Daredevil is the one that has stuck in the public consciousness and guided the book for the past decades.  I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoyed the Daredevil TV show but wants to get to the real deal, or for anyone who loves a good hard-boiled, gritty story.


The X-Men battle one of their own in the Dark Phoenix Saga

The Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga – Chris Claremont & John Byrne (1980)

I cannot remember a time I did not read comic books.  Around 1985 or so, at 12 years of age, I got my hands on this first trade paperback printing of The Uncanny X-Men issues 129-138.  At that time, nearly 4 decades ago, it was rare to find bound re-prints of classic story lines.  I was very fortunate.  I have read this book countless times in the intervening years, always finding it to be deep and very entertaining.  

        My wife, Elizabeth, loves reading but it took until our relationship for her to read many of the great comics I love, such as From Hell, The Watchmen, and especially the full Sandman series.  We enjoy reading them together, although my baritone voice will end up lulling her to sleep mid-page!  As she had never read any X-Men comics, and because I have subjected her to too many superhero movies that rip-off these classic tales, we decided to read this together.

        One of the reasons the classic X-Men comic books are so prized is that the stories told within those pages, while every bit the exciting smash-‘em-ups expected in superhero comics, explored the internal lives and personal relationships of the X-Men superhero team.  Their interpersonal conflicts, emotions, and persecutions were all part of the tale and served to ground these heroes.  Reading a book like the Avengers was much different.  Although they too consist of a team of super-powered beings, the Avengers remained cold archetypes.  Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the rest, may have had some personal quirks, but the stories never let us into their inner minds.  It took the X-Men to bring personal stories into the superhero genre.

        The story by comics legend Chris Claremont, and the kinetic artwork of John Byrne, was so ahead-of-it’s-time that it has been endlessly copied.  (I could go an at length about the amazing Bill Sienkewicz cover art.  I stared at that for HOURS)  The tale begins with the X-Men exploration of a secret cabal seeking to take over the world while remaining hidden by an outside show of opulence and beneficent work.  These enemies are dealt with in turn, but not before they manage to bring about the return of Dark Phoenix, a being of power and greed who seeks to consume all of existence.  The X-Men’s dilemma is that the Dark Phoenix has manifested herself in the body of Jean Grey, a powerful telepath and one of the original X-Men.  What they do to try and save both her and us from Dark Phoenix is the climax of this story.

        As with any works of fiction, I do not like to give away plot points or anything that may detract from your enjoyment of the story.  If you have seen some of the X-Men films of the past 15 years you will see where the writers of those films cribbed many details from this Dark Phoenix Saga, even while completely ignoring the actual human tale within.  This book has been re-printed many time since.  If you are able to find a copy, you will experience one of the greatest stories ever told in the world of mainstream superhero comic books.  I cannot wait to read it again in a few years.