Tag Archives: formless

Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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Rise of the Black Flame: Issue 1 of 5

blackflame_1

On a recent visit to my local comic store, I was surprised that the owner had added this comic to my folder. I inquired about it and was informed that it was a short five-issue offshoot of the Hellboy saga and he thought I would like it. I figured I would give it a try. I’m glad that I did.

The story begins with young girls in Burma being kidnapped and sacrificed as part of a ritualistic ceremony. While this trope may seem a little hackneyed, the strength of the story is in the subtle details within the text. These I found intriguing, even in this short first installment.

Many mystical and spiritual traditions assert that sound or vibration brought everything into existence. In fact, energy, which is the basis of all life and existence, is vibration. This concept is hinted at during an invocation early in the story.

<You are the origin of all things, and devourer of all things.> <Your perfect song can be heard in the void, but also in the hum deep within all living things in this breathing world.> <Though having form, you are formless. Though you are without beginning, so are you without end.>

Also in the short passage, we have hints of Taoism, of form and formlessness combined into one. Additionally, I see references to the ouroboros, the powerful occult symbol of wholeness and infinity.

Ourosboros

Racial and ethnic tensions seem to be running high these days, and this is hinted at in the story. There is a great panel where the British general expresses his racist views by asserting that it is one thing if Burmese children go missing, but British girls disappearing is unacceptable. This corresponds with the tendency in some places to show outrages at the death of a white person, but lack of concern over the death of a black person.

Yes, well, Burmese children might well wander away from home unattended. But two English girls missing is two too many.

Finally, in a nice twist, the strong lead character turns out to be a woman, which I love. We need more strong female characters. So while in the first part of the tale it appears that the lead characters are two men, it shifts and the main characters appear to be two women. I find this a nice balance of the masculine and feminine.

I want to close with one more quote from this issue, which resonated with me.

The world is a great deal stranger–and more dangerous–than most would credit, mon cher.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 14” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Look at it but you cannot see it!
Its name is Formless.

Listen to it but you cannot hear it!
Its name is Soundless.

Grasp it but you cannot get it!
Its name is Incorporeal.

These three attributes are unfathomable;
Therefore they fuse into one.

Its upper side is not bright:
Its under side not dim.
Continually the Unnameable moves on,
Until it returns beyond the realm of things.
We call it the formless Form, the imageless Image.
We call it the indefinable and unimaginable.

Confront it and you do not see its face!
Follow it and you do not see its back!
Yet, equipped with this timeless Tao,
You can harness present realities.

To know the origins is initiation into the Tao.

I found this passage to be fairly simple, but still rich and beautiful. Here, Lao Tzu uses paradoxical phrases to describe the ineffable divine source. By referring to the divine as a “formless Form” and an “imageless Image,” a space is created that cannot be represented through words, because it exists beyond our capacity for comprehension. This is the divine source and the Eternal Tao.

But although we with our finite minds can never fully grasp that which is infinite and eternal, we should still endeavor to contemplate it, for by doing so we catch impressions of our divine origin and gain wisdom. This wisdom helps us navigate the challenging pathways of our existence.

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