Captain Fan-plastic

As a father of five children, I often think about the various influences that they experience growing up in a first world country in a middle-class family. The constant drive towards consumerism, the emphasis placed on possessions and privilege rather than contribution and talent. An education system obsessed with scores and regurgitation, ill-equipped to teach children in a way most suited to their individual aptitudes and natures.

I often wonder whether their values, strength of character and health would be different if they grew up in a forest, living on the land and being taught in a way that encouraged them, rather than chose irrelevant measures to shame or falsely praise them with.

The 2016 film by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic, uses this concept as the central theme. I thought the actors in the film did a fantastic job, especially Viggo Mortensen in the lead as the idealist, socialist, father of six. My childish dig in the title of this blog is not made at the performances, but at the artificial nature of some aspects of the analysis presented by Matt Ross (writer and director).

While watching the film, there were several other films and books that immediately sprang to mind. The first one is Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, released in 2007. The references are unmistakable with the use of a bus, the sexual awakening in a trailer (American for caravan) park, and the placement of the ‘wild’ in North West America. Perhaps Sean benefited from the source material being a true story, but the theme of an ultimate failure to leave society for a better life in the wilderness seemed more appropriate for the subject matter than the seemingly trite ending of Captain Fantastic. I should also mention the brilliant sound-track for Into the Wild that features Eddie Vedder.

Another reference that springs to mind is the book by Miriam Lancewood covering her period of surviving in the South Island of New Zealand, Woman in the Wilderness. I have not read the book, but have listened to several radio interviews with Miriam. One of the things that fascinated me about Miriam’s description of her experience was the way that living in a survival mode felt so different in terms of mental load, and that living in a modern society is extremely stressful.

Real life examples of this type of survival exodus from Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild were also recalled while watching Captain Fantastic. Having watched this show is probably what triggered my biggest frustration with the film. The way that hunting a deer, killing it with your hands (knife) and eating the liver raw opened the film just didn’t sit at all with the experience that Kevin McCloud conveyed in his time with families that had done this type of survivalist sea-change. My thoughts after watching Kevin’s series was that these people had opted for a hard life, were ensuring that their children could never re-enter society if they chose to, and that the risks in terms of access to medical assistance and surety of food supply were high.

Other reviewers of the film have referenced the 1986 film, The Mosquito Coast, based on the book of the same name by Paul Theroux. There is an underlying discomfort during Captain Fantastic, that maybe Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a crazy zealot who is forcing his family to live a nightmare and that his actions eventually led to the death of his wife. So many of the historical efforts to find a utopia in the jungle have ended in the dystopian way described by Theroux.

Having weighed the pros and cons of taking children out of society, to live a nature based life, I have opted for a middle road. We live on a quarter acre, in a town of 5000 people and I commute an hour into work in the city. We have the space for chickens, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden and live only 30 minutes from a National Park. Our children go to school, but are encouraged at home to read widely and debate the fundamental ideas of our society, with no religious dogma or family political allegiances forced on them.

I still feel that we, as a race, have lost touch with our humanity when we drive to work in a car, sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and spend our days glued to screens of various sizes. Unfortunately, in the current economy, there is no way to provide food, shelter, and the means to fit in with the rest of society without working a city job. I followed with great interest the journey of athatcher85 on his YouTube channel Planting Freedom. If you want to hear the heart wrenching cry of humanity to return to a healthy existence, watch this video. What he has achieved over the past 4 years is incredible, but ultimately demands a lot of sacrifice for a family.

In summary, I enjoyed watching most of the film, but the knowledge that I came with meant that I saw much of the plot as contrived, and many of the real issues around living off-grid, were not accurately represented. I think the scenes where Ben brings his wild children to visit his sisters typical ‘white American’ family perfectly showed how unready the mainstream viewers are to tackle the real implications of the issues raised in the film.

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Violence in the System

Since joining the Destroy the Joint page on Facebook this year, prompted by reading Clementine Ford’s brilliant but confronting Fight Like a Girl, I have watch with sadness and a feeling of helplessness as the death toll of women killed by violence in Australia rises.

This issue has become higher profile than usual in Australia after the brutal murder of Rosie Batty’s eleven year old son, Luke, by his father, in broad daylight at cricket practice in 2014.  Despite the terrible horror of this incident, Rosie has courageously used the spotlight to campaign against domestic violence nationally.

I don’t mean courageous like giving up sugar in your coffee, but courageous in a way that is in every degree equal to climbing Everest or storming the beaches at Normandy.

I have been thinking about this, while sitting in my cocoon of educated, white, privileged maleness. Where do the roots of this behaviour come from? Have we always been this way as a society? Has the enslavement and abuse of women by men been the way of things for the past million years?

It irks me the way that Western Christians look with scorn on the ‘terrible suppression of women’ in Muslim culture. Look back 300 years and you will find child brides, legalised rape, disenfranchisement, underpayment, public torture and execution of women for trivial infringements and other general abuse of women in so-called civilised, Christianised, Europe.

In considering the widespread physical and mental abuse of women by male partners in Australia, and other developed countries, I have to think there is something in the upbringing of both victim and abuser that is at play. In the instant when a man raises his hand to hit a woman because his tea was cold, the dinner wasn’t what he wanted or the children were too loud, there are two psychological structures at play which go beyond the mere physicality and immediacy of the situation.

I will caveat here that I know there are real cases where males are physically abused by women, and that I suspect similar psychological factors are in play.

I am looking forward to seeing the new Wonder Woman movie because it highlights my next point. I disagree strongly with the twentieth century argument that women are physically weaker than men.

You don’t have to go far to find this ridiculous view still held by many men (and women), for example this Polish politician. To quote from an ex Australian Prime Minister in 1979:

I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons. – Tony Abbott (SRC Paper)

Here is my thesis, the physiological argument about women’s weakness is complete rubbish, and that any group of women, if conditioned and trained from birth for physical violence, would be every bit as capable as a similar group of men. In Steve Backshall’s book, Ghosts of the Forest, he includes the idea that US Marines are trained to shoot the female terrorist first because they are far more ruthless when threatened (I’m not sure of the veracity of Steve’s claim, but it seems reasonable).

In the most recent installment of the Wolverine franchise, Logan, the daughter has extra claws based on the premise that women need to be able to defend their pack as well as themselves.

So women have the capacity for power and strength, not just some women, but every woman. Yet they are conditioned from birth in Western society to see themselves as diminished and subservient to a man. Recent evidence of this absurd view at a Christian conference here in Australia.

I have no first had experience of domestic violence, but a part of me suspects that if a woman felt internally empowered to fight back, if they had been instilled with a sense of their worth, independent of their child-bearing ability, and made aware of the willingness of their family and clan to defend and protect them, that our society would not be the way that it is. I am not at all suggesting that women who find themselves with a violent partner just needed to fight back harder, I just wonder whether part of the will to fight back has already been sapped from them through psychological conditioning.

If boys had been punished or re-directed every time they try and force a kiss on a girl in primary school, if they had been shown examples of respect for women, if every television show, movie and advertisement didn’t re-inforce the concept of women as property and playthings, I doubt they would ever consider violence in the home an option.

Maybe every girl should graduate primary school with a good understanding of Krav Maga. I know because I have heard it in so many accounts that the psychological seeds of “you deserve this”, “what did you do to upset him?”, “you would shame the family if you leave” must ring in the mind of every woman confronted with the horror of a violent partner.

At the same time, the “teach her a lesson”, “keep her in her place” phrases are ringing in the ears of the perpetrator. These thoughts don’t come from nowhere, they are planted in our children from an early age, by parents, grandparents, siblings and society.

There is no point trying to tackle this problem in the first weeks of marriage or a relationship. It can only be tackled in the messages and exposure given to our youngest members of society. I wrote this song for Domestic Violence Prevention Month, but I realise that by the time we are trying to help victims escape their situation and put their lives back together, we have already failed as a society.

I cannot offer a better future, I don’t see this issue being brought into the national school curriculum, or all advertising and media that condones minimisation of women being restricted. There is too much to be gained for men by maintaining the structures that keep women down. The irony of this situation is that I don’t think any real satisfaction or fulfilment comes from a relationship where one half is bound to the relationship through psychological chains.

I hope for a world where men and women work together by choice, as equal and powerful masters of their destiny, but we have so far to go.

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Friendship-City with Strings

As a rule, I try my best to stay out of politics. Not because I don’t care what happens to people, but because I have lost faith in the idea that people can change, or that people can change the minds of other people. I have seen it happen, but so very rarely.

I live in a small rural town of about five thousand people, but work in a larger city of 350 thousand. This week I heard our local Mayor speaking with the radio station in the city announcing a great new trade opportunity about to be established with Wuzhou in Guangxi Province in China. Establishment of a Friendship-City is touted as “the first step for any promotion of trade or tourism in China” in the press release on the local Council website.

I have a reasonably long history with China. I was comfortable being the smartest kid in the class in my small Queensland school until the arrival of a Hong Kong migrant in year 10. The disparity between the Chinese and Australian schooling systems quickly became apparent as my supremacy in Maths, Physics and Chemistry was quickly toppled. I did become good friends with Kevin in the remaining high-school years and turned to English as a subject I could still come first in. I also learnt that Kevin’s father had swum to Hong Kong to escape mainland China. Up until then I had no idea what Communism was, or what China was like beyond the fanciful Kung Fu dramatisations.

I was prompted to read more deeply into China’s history after I started to learn the Falun Gong exercises in 1998. I had become interested in the practice as part of my search for a personal spiritual path, but quickly was propelled into direct conflict with the brutal Communist regime.

Due to its popularity, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, launched a nationwide crackdown and slander campaign against Falun Gong on 20 July 1999. You can read about the terrible statistics of executions, imprisonment and harassment here. While things were muddy in the first few years, with information very difficult to get out of China, there is now a credible body of evidence, recognised and supported by independent organisations and governments all around the world that verifies the atrocities.

The situation manifested itself in Canberra (Australia’s Capital) in 2001 when some Falun Gong practitioners from Sydney began a hunger strike and permanent peaceful protest outside the Chinese Embassy. With their limited English, I quickly became the interface between local government and the protest, as seen in the 2002 media reports here.

The Australian government of the time was very un-supportive of the protest, their actions eventually leading to a negative finding against Mr Alexander Downer (then Foreign Minister) by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in relation to a complaint that I raised. To be fair, the local security services and police have always been supportive and reasonable. It was the actions of government staff and ministers that were deplorable. As an example, for one visiting Chinese delegation they hired 5 empty buses to park in front of the protest.

In the current situation, some 18 years on from the beginning of the crackdown on Falun Gong in China, not much has changed. Ethnic minorities, House Church Christians, Tibetans and Falun Gong are still subject to beatings, wrongful imprisonment, torture and, more recently discovered, organ harvesting.

While I agree that trade and tourism are good for Australia, and especially good for small towns with limited revenue options, I know that engagement with China must be done with our eyes open. Several Australian businessmen have found themselves in Chinese prisons, Matthew Ng being just one example, as a result of the inherit corruption in the Chinese Communist Party system.

I have written an open letter to the Mayors of both Wuzhou and Yass, as a way to draw attention to the care that needs to be taken when engaging a Communist country. Any government which has a morality level that allows it to keep people imprisoned as a living organ bank, needs to be regarded with extreme caution.

Some further reading:

Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party

Witnessing History – Jennifer Zeng

State Organs: Transplant Abuse in China

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The Wicker Man

This isn’t a post about the 1973 British film by Robin Hardy, or the awful American re-make of 2006. I did enjoy these films (the first far more, obviously) because they tackle the challenge of humanity looking back at our history through the eyes of a different morality.

Looking back through an ‘us and them’ mentality of Christians vs. Pagans is a little farcical given the fact that the atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition out-do, in their depravity and cruelty, anything we might accuse the agrarian Egyptian and Indo-European cultures or even the more warlike Norse culture of. I guess you could develop a scale of violence and cruelty, but I’m not sure what the point would be.

I suspect that many Atheists look at people who indoctrinate their children into a belief system that incorporates ritual cannibalism of an agrarian sun-god archetype overlayed on a Hebrew rebel with similar scorn.

Hot for Joe Morris

On May 20th I attended the English Ale festival, held in the town of Mylor in South Australia. The day include a collection of activities taken from various aspects of culture from the United Kingdom, including Morris Dancing, burning a Wicker Man, Punch and Judy, Mummers Play and a concert at the end of the day.


Punch and Judy

I found the day thoroughly enjoyable and recommend it to anyone with a bit of a pagan bent. If you aren’t familiar with European pagan custom the day may seem a bit confusing.

On the subject of being confusing, the driving motivation behind this post is my lamenting the loss of valuable collective ritual in modern society. I doubt very much if the thousand or so people attending the English Ale had harvested their corn by hand, made a Corn Dolly to

Hedgemonkey Morris

preserve the spirit of the grain over the winter or had a personal perception that the jumps made in the Morris dance had any connection to the height of their next crop of corn. I know one or two attendees may have, but in the collective I think it is fair to say that most of us are divorced from the reality of dependence on an agrarian lifestyle.


While some would argue that this is the 21st century and we should get on with living our shopping mall and iPhone lives, part of me still yearns for the simplicity of connection to nature and the intertwining of it in a ritual lifestyle. I know there are many groups, the Norse Heathens, the new Druids or the various flavours of Wiccans, who are trying to revive the ‘old gods’ and ‘old ways’. I sympathise with these groups, and spent some time as one myself, but ultimately struggled to find authenticity.

Jack in the Green

The Wicker Man

So what do we have left when it comes to collective ritual? Some people attend football matches and cheer or boo their respective teams. Some people march in protest against the vast collection of government incompetence, others go to see pop stars play in stadiums or preachers with their own rock-band play in bigger stadiums. I think all of these things have in common a placement of the audience in the role of relatively passive observer.

Fire Hazard

In America the Burning Man or Coachella festivals involve mass gathering of people, but I get the feeling that the narcissistic undercurrent is not the same as events where the participants are contributing for a perceived greater good. The only experience I can draw on where something transcendent is created by a group of individuals is at an Irish Music session. Thirty musicians singing or playing a common tune, working in harmony is a sublime experience.

Lighting Ceremony

Session music is not like listening to or performing in a choir or band with set music, but music that is generated directly in response to the flow of the tune.

Wicker Man Fire

I definitely recommend attending the English Ale if you get a chance. I put together some of the footage that I took along with a cover of Damh the Bard’s excellent song, Wicker Man, in a video here.  The festival is a collection of echoes that call to something in the bones of our agrarian heritage. I’m not confident that we as a race are in a position to hear them clearly, but I will continue to listen.

Around the Wicker Man Fire

Kacey Stephenson

Details for all the groups and performers can be found at

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The (not so) Old Ways

May in the Southern Hemisphere means Autumn leaves and the first taste of winter in the air. For those in the North it is the traditional beginning of Spring, with all the ritual and ceremony that was part of an agrarian culture for as far back as 10,000 years. That is of course until a small cult from the Near East rose to power and took over most of the world, stamping out ancient traditions with coercion or violence wherever they went.

I have made a recording of Hal An Tow on my You Tube channel. This website, focused on Proto-Indo-European Religion, has an excellent few pages covering May Day celebrations, including the Hal An Tow and other Furry Day activities. Furry, as in the Latin Feria, meaning Faire, rather than the Furry types that identify/dress as animals. Though having said that, I am sure there is some crossover with pre-Christian animal totems and personification of deities as animals.

Most sites indicate that the etymology of the name ‘Hal-An-Tow’ is unclear. Some claim a connection with a ‘Heel and Toe’ dance, others imply that the Cornish words mean Calender (Halan) and Garland (Tow). Most are in agreement that the original nature and true meaning of the festival held annually in early May at Helston in Cornwall are lost. The ceremony claims medieval origins, and includes many staple characters of English folklore, i.e. Robin Hood and Marion, St. George and Mary.

Some verses of the song show up in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It:

What shall he have that killed the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home.
(The rest shall bear this burden.)
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn.
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.
Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2, 1599

Interestingly, the dialogue before this song references the Romans. It is unlikely, after having visited the Roman ruins in Bath and watched my share of Time Team episodes, that many of the Agrarian rituals of the Roman religions did not make their way into the traditions of Great Britain.

This brings me to the crux of my issue, authenticity. Whether it be those attempting to revive the ritual and lore of the Norse, the Greco-Roman mysteries, the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland or any other culture where 1500 years of Christian suppression stands in your way, it is a daunting task.

One the one hand, many of us feel a primal pull to the ceremony and ideology. On the other hand, this innocence lends itself to exploitation by charlatans.


I recently became aware of this book, Thought Vibration by William Walker Atkinson. Atkinson operated in the early 1900s in America and wrote under at least three, possibly four or more, pseudonyms. It is not just that he used an assumed name, but that his pseudonyms were tied to assumed identities, Indian Yogi’s, French Mentalists and others. Atkinson was far from a pioneer in this form of con, with L. Ron Hubbard, Helena Blavatsky and William Westcott (Golden Dawn) being other examples. At the risk of the wrath of some neo-pagans I would also put Gerald Gardner in the same basket.

These people all claimed access to higher knowledge either through ancient races, alien cultures or uncovered texts or artifacts and in most cases used this information to part many a person from their money.

The sad reality is that Christianity did a very good job of stamping out all genuine records of the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt, Herne the Hunter in England or Odin in Scandinavia. In fact, the tradition goes back beyond Christianity, with Greek and Roman gods often swallowing the gods of the conquered.

We see only remnants of these ancient characters, so loved and respected or feared by our ancestors. I loved the way that Marion Zimmer Bradley describes the continuation of the Celtic goddesses in the figure of Mother Mary in her book Mists of Avalon. However, it seems unfair that these entities can only persist into the future while in hiding.

The version of Hal An Tow that I recorded owes a lot to The Waterson’s version, but I have also include a verse that Damh the Bard uses as nod to the undeniably pagan origins of the song.

Like many people, I am disillusioned with a belief system that has severed itself from nature. A doctrine of human ‘dominion’ that led to our pollution of the environment, pollution of our bodies and an education system that leans towards facts, impersonal logic and false certainty. I’m not looking back teary eyed at a perfect past, but wishing that there was some way to teach respect for the earth and all its creatures along with the other advances in human knowledge.

So happy May to my northern friends, in the knowledge that the turning of the earth and the movement of the sun still governs our lives, no matter how much we try and distance ourselves from it.

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Crucified Chocolate Solar Bunnies

It’s Easter, and all around the world people will be enjoying a holiday while celebrating the death and resurrection of a Jewish insurgent purported to have lived over 2000 years ago. In a confused mash-up of agrarian sun-deity ritual and imagery, the ceremonies, story and costumes are disjointed and bizarre. Somehow no one notices the contradiction and people of the many hundred flavours of the Christian faith will participate without giving it a second thought.

“The real life of a patriotic Jewish bandit has been forced into the container of this solar myth to give us Christianity.” – Dr. M D Magee

For a thorough analysis of why Easter is so ridiculous, take the time to read this article by Doctor Michael Magee. The evidence put forward in the article, Crucifixion of Sun Gods as Atoning Saviours, that this aspect of the Christian religion is in no way unique and was probably never a core part of the teachings of an historical Jesus is irrefutable. The real question for me is, how do people fall for this rubbish?

One of the songs of my childhood which has stuck with me is Rainbow Connection, from the 1979 Muppet Movie. I recorded a version for my YouTube channel, and also link to the Kermit/Henson original. For me this song praised the right to question the universe, to look at the world with wonder and dream the impossible. This idea went directly against my Pentecostal Christian upbringing which taught that we know everything and punished asking questions.

Kermit is on a journey of discovery, with the Rainbow Connection being something waiting to be found. We don’t understand the motivation to search, but feel its pull inside us.

I have always felt this urge to discover, to ask why, to question views that are given to me with no evidence but demand unquestioning acceptance. It is sometimes scary and uncomfortable to look around and see a vast majority of the rest of society conforming.

My family and I have been watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s  fantastic series Cosmos. Apart from the brilliant production and easy to follow walk-throughs of advanced scientific concepts, a key take-away has been how often the pursuit of knowledge has been violently stifled throughout history.

I would like to believe that our societal structure of limiting ideas and controlling ideologies is just an accident of history. A more cynical side of me starts to see the Christian Religion, and other aspects of society (reality TV, televised sport, talent competitions, game shows) as carefully constructed tools for control of a population, built and maintained by a heartless and power-hungry cadre of people.

This past week was marred by the loss of John Clarke, a brilliant comedian/satirist from my native New Zealand. I recorded a version of his Gumboot Song, which, in the folk tradition, was taken from Billy Connolly’s Wellies, which was in-turn taken from the Clancy Brother’s Work of the Weavers.

The work of John and people like him has been a critical part of helping the population to notice and call out the times when the engines of control show their claws. Satire gives us permission to laugh at the man in a frock at the alter dispensing unquestionable wisdom and the suited politician selling policies designed to line their pockets as policies in the interest of the people.


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The Song Goes On – I Hope

The title of this post comes from the song written by Mick Ryan on the passing of Cyril Tawney. In an interesting twist of serendipity, when I looked up Cyril I found that he had written the ‘Chicken on a Raft’ sea shanty, which I learnt from a local Irish folk singer here in Australia. Our songs certainly do go on, and travel broadly.

Last week Australia lost a pillar of the folk tradition with the passing of Danny Spooner. I never had the fortune to hear Danny sing in person, but I have spent the week going over YouTube recordings of his performances that are available. This version of When First I Came To Caledonia, performed by Danny at the Fleurieu Folk Festival in 2016, gives an insight into the sublime beauty that Danny was able to generate with just a voice and concertina.

I am doing my own recordings of the songs Danny was well known for and have gathered them in a playlist. If other folks from around the world have made recent recordings of their own I would love to add them to the list (contact me on YouTube).

I found one video of Danny singing an un-named song, also at Fleurieu in 2016. After much effort Google searching snippets of the lyrics, I found the ballad in the 1839 highwayman novel, Jack Sheppard, by William Harrison Ainsworth. It is interesting to note that while the novel was published in 1839, the exploits of Jack Sheppard occurred in 1723, and the Claude Duval mentioned in the song was around in the mid 1600s. So I guess highway robbery has a long and distinguished heritage.

It struck me, during this process, that when the folk community loses a singer of this talent and knowledge, we don’t just lose a performer. We lose a library of knowledge, about the origins of the songs they sing and the stories that accompany them. How did Danny come to be the only person singing this 1839 ballad? Where did the tune come from? Was the pairing his own creation or had he heard the song in a 1940 music hall?

In my previous efforts recording folk ballads, I have been confronted with the Broadsheet library of, literally, thirty thousand songs. Trawling through them made me realise that 70-80% of the content was tabloid rubbish and not worth bringing into the 21st century. What folklorists like Danny Spooner do for the audience and folk community, is spend those many hours pouring through the trash to find the gems and polish them into a thing of beauty.

While the electronic tune and song libraries are an excellent resource for the folk community, the capacity to pair a song with a tune, and perform it in a way that captures an audience is a special kind of magic.

Fortunately, some of the conversations held with Danny about his music have been recorded, like the one here by Verandah Music. However, it is easy to get the feeling that Danny probably had a few hundred hours more information in his head that was never recorded. The sparse recordings of house concerts and folk festivals where Danny takes a few minutes to talk about a song before singing it are so valuable to retaining the legacy of performers like this.

I recently watched the documentary Amy about the life and demise of Amy Winehouse (not something to watch if you want to be cheered up). In any case, it showed how people of this type end up with a digital record of almost everything they have said and done as soon as they become a ‘little’ famous. No such paparazzi for even the ‘popular’ folk singers.

At most sessions I have been to, people tend to frown on the 20-something holding up their iPhone recording the proceedings, I am starting to re-think that attitude.

In conclusion, I know the grief and loss being experienced by Danny’s close friends and family is no comparison to what I am discussing, after all, folk-people tend to be the kindest, most unpretentious and most valued human beings I have come across and are sorely missed when they pass. I do also mourn the loss to the tradition, and hope we can find ways to preserve what we have a little better.


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Strange Days Indeed

So I have become accustomed to the recent Marvel movies having a relatively thin story-line when it comes to tricky moral questions. The movies are still exciting adventures in escapism, but the moral questions posed, “Is making weapons bad?”, “Is it okay to kill one life to save many?” and “Should we put ultimate power in the hands of a computer program?” are fairly well-traversed terrain with answers that don’t challenge the average viewer too much.

If found that Dr Strange, staring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a delightful diversion from this formula and tackled some of the genuine problems that face those who follow a spiritual path.

Those who go to Tibet sincerely in search of the Dharma
may settle down there once they arrive—those are true

 – Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun, Lecture 4

As a practitioner of an eastern cultivation system myself, I found this movie fascinating. It provided a faithful recreation of many of the challenges facing someone who is seeking answers to the questions that our present science struggles to explain.

In the quote above, Master Li Hongzhi, speaks about the importance of Tibet, and the surrounding region to people seeking a spiritual path. We don’t have to go far to find movies that have made use of this theme, Bulletproof Monk, The Shadow, Johnny English Reborn and Batman Begins.

Batman Begins is unique in that the other movies all use the premise that spiritual cultivation in Tibet is genuine and the Masters of the Tibetan schools have something worthwhile to teach. Instead, in Batman Begins, Bhutan stands in for Tibet and the mystical eastern school is devolved into an equivalent of Al Qaeda.

This is woeful American misinterpretation of culture based on a superficial knowledge and subsequent misrepresentation as a plot device. Anyone who had done the most basic study into Tibetan Buddhism would know that these schools shun involvement in the conflicts of society and seek to detach themselves from the struggles of humanity.

** Beyond here be spoilers. **

Back to Doctor Strange, there were so many issues raised in this movie so I will try to select a few examples. The story covers the challenging relationship between student and teacher, the availability of knowledge and the underlying conflict between eastern and western science/medicine.

Zhuan Falun or Turning the Law/Dharma Wheel is the key text of the spiritual/cultivation practice of Falun Dafa. The text is a compilation of a series of lectures given by the founder of the practice, Li Hongzhi, in china from 1992 until 1994. The reason I mention this text in the context of Doctor Strange is that a large portion of the nine lectures is general commentary on the various spiritual cultivation practices that have been taught over the past 2500 years. Some of the lessons closely correlate with the issues raised in the movie.

The first lesson is around the relationship between student teacher, beginning with the reason why individuals seek out a spiritual teacher in the first place. In the movie, Stephen Vincent Strange, is set on this path by a car accident which destroys his hands.

As a neuro-surgeon, even science’s ability to restore some function to his hands is not enough to stop him from descending into a downwards emotional and financial spiral. His search finally leads him to a secret school in Kathmandu, Nepal.

There is a very poignant moment where the door to the Kamar-Taj school, which is very plain, sits opposite an ornate temple entrance with colourful Ascetics out the front. Students of Buddhism will remember Sakyamuni’s time with the Ascetics before finding his Middle Way. Here we see the lesson that finding a genuine school is often not about the loudest, shiniest or most colourful peddlers of spirituality, but the quiet, hidden and un-assuming.

While in this movie the motivation is health, there are a number of other reasons which prompt a spiritual search, including a great personal loss, a thirst for power or possibly just the feeling that what you have been told doesn’t add up and the true answers must be somewhere. It has always intrigued me, as someone drive to search, the way that some people accept the dogma of their parents/society’s faith without question and others are driven to question and search more widely.

The next step is the moment where the wise teacher has their ‘everything you know is wrong’ moment with the student. In the case of Doctor Strange, this is a very in-your-face demonstration of other-dimensions, opening of the Third Eye and an explanation of how this physical world is just one of many.

My favourite one of these in other movies has to be the levitation of the X-wing by Yoda in Empire Strikes Back.

Interestingly, the average student of a spiritual practice may spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, experiencing nothing before a moment of enlightenment like the one portrayed in Doctor Strange. The relative ease with which Mordo reveals all this to Stephen should have been an indicator that all was not well in Kamar-Taj.

Some groups, which are not genuine spiritual schools but just thinly disguised pyramid schemes, are very careful about controlling the dissemination of knowledge. Freemasonry and Scientology immediately come to mind. The rule in Kamar-Taj that “no knowledge is forbidden”, as explained by librarian Master Wong, is quite unusual and brings me to the second topic of interest.

The dissemination of knowledge is a fascinating topic in spiritual schools. Some schools guard their secrets carefully, either because they want to charge ridiculous amounts for their piecemeal release or because they are genuinely concerned about the dangers of untrained use.

There is an episode of the excellent animated children’s series Kung Fu Panda : Legends of Awesomeness, Fluttering Finger Mindslip, where Po reads ahead in the teaching scrolls and wreaks havoc with some advanced mind-control techniques. The running joke in Doctor Strange is that in the books the warnings are written after the spells.

There is definitely something to be said for careful management of a student’s education, whether spiritual or academic. Then again, reading a text on advanced quantum mathematics probably won’t hinder your ability to grasp basic addition. However, breaking out the nuclear reactor kit on the first day of high-school chemistry could be disastrous. The shenanigans around Allegri’s Miserere is a good example of how powerful religious institutions seek to control access to knowledge, in this case in order to preserve the mystery.

I think that Doctor Strange did a good job of presenting this issue in the screenplay, as I was not ever exposed to Doctor Strange in comic book form as a child, I’m not sure how much of this was the screenplay writers and how much they were lifting from the original content.

The third aspect of the movie that I wanted to discuss is the difference between eastern and western medicine. The divide is probably not accurately portrayed geographically as there is evidence that western traditions, such as druidry had a certain degree of similarity with eastern philosophy in their understanding of the body.

There is a section in lecture 7 of Zhuan Falun where a comparison is made between western and eastern efforts when it comes to tooth extraction. One approach uses needles, drills, pliers and hammers resulting in lots of pain and blood,  the other uses a magic ‘drug’ that causes the tooth to come out easily. This story references a similar case in India but frustratingly makes no mention of testing or synthesis of the ‘drug’.

During Doctor Strange’s first encounter with the Ancient One, played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, she flips through a book of ‘alternative’ medicine showing Chakra’s, Acupuncture and then an MRI scan. The implication of the conversation is that each way of viewing the body is only part of the picture. This concept of reality being made of multiple layers of perception, where the broadness of the view equates to the level of attainment is key in some spiritual teachings.

As an engineer, this concept is practically demonstrated in the limited capacity of the human eye to detect the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. We spend our lives perceiving in a tiny sliver of the full reality of what our world looks like.

These three small examples are just some of the ways that I found this movie enjoyable as someone who has spent a lot of time studying spiritual paths. It was definitely not what I was expecting from a Marvel movie.

The film is also full of in-jokes from the spiritual world. The Master/Servant switch to generate confusion in the new initiate, the ‘sink or swim’ nature of the training, the commercialization of enlightenment in Kathmandu and the assumption that spiritual equals cult.

I look forward to the inclusion of Doctor Strange in future Marvel efforts.





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Culture Wars

My Place

I don’t see you. Walking through my place,

I don’t see your run-down shops or cars and power-lines,

I am walking on the red earth, not this artificial stone.

I look through your Ray-Ban stare to the black cockatoo in the distance,

Foretelling rain or the spirit of an ancestor, or whatever,

you don’t deserve to know the secrets of my dreaming.

The skyline isn’t Woolworths and McDonalds,

Pizzas, two for ten on Tuesdays.

My skyline is ancient rock, marked with the hands of my ancestors.

This is my place, has been for 40,000 years before your mob

turned up to chain and rape and kill, the land and my people.

What is it you see in your cycle of consume, control, pollute?

Always grasping for more than what the mother gives,

the land that is always enough.

My veins might pulse with your poison,

But in my heart I am still dancing the brolga and emu around the fire,

Telling and preserving the dreaming of my place.

Your place is a phantom, a shambles of broken and fragile things,

I wait for it to fade, for the day I wake up,

and you come to my camp asking for a handout.

The poem above is in response to spending a few days in Darwin and Katherine in the north of Australia. I have traveled to quite a number of places around the world where native populations have come to an uncomfortable but stable balance with a colonising invader. Whether it be Hawaii, New Zealand or America, I have sensed that a portion of the original people has found a way to coexisting with the new population. It is never without a sense of loss, but in each of the other countries there has been a way for all the local people to take pride in their culture and balance commercialisation for the tourist dollar with genuine and powerful preservation of identity.

To a certain extent this type of arrangement is even true of the Australian native peoples in New South Wales and Victoria. In the Northern Territory, however, it is a tragic disaster. The people wandering the streets of Katherine seem to behave as though the white people and their town appeared last week and they are wondering when the apparition is going to disappear.

Maybe it is purely an issue of time, and that the peoples of America, Hawaii and New Zealand split from the common European ancestor a few hundred years later, allowing them to adapt to the Western mindset more easily. Could it be that an extra 10,000 years of development has left the two populations in an un-reconcilable state?

I should make it clear that I am not preferring one culture over the other. Yes we have superannuation, iPhones and advanced medical treatment, but few of us know the lives and exploits of our parents, let-alone our great-great-great-great-grandparents. Fewer still could name the grasses, trees and shrubs in the area where we live, or the history of how the land was formed. In our branching of culture, we both lost and gained.

Wherever I have traveled, I have tried to learn some of the history of the local people, understood the reverence with which King Kamehameha is held, the language of Hula, the significance of the Marae in Maori society. In the case of Australian first people’s society, it feels like I don’t even have the mental capacity to begin to understand. Yes I know about boomerangs and digeridoos, even the Rainbow Serpent and song lines, but it still seems like I am missing the point.

A friend once explained to me that the peoples of Micronesia have a cosmic view that white people are aliens and that the complexity, strength and pervasiveness of their culture meant that western style democracy and society could never function there. I definitely now feel that something like this is true of the people in Northern Australia.

What is that answer? I don’t have one of course. I know it isn’t stealing their children and giving them to abusive catholic priests. I know that whatever is being done in Darwin and Katherine isn’t working. I also feel that hidden in the flesh and bones of a 40,000 year old people is the secret to our culture learning to live on the planet without destroying it.

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Miranda – Keep the Cameras Rolling

With everything that has happened since the surreal inauguration of Donald Trump on 20th of January, I have found myself feeling paralysed and numb. The string of ridiculous Presidential Executive Orders this week has dashed any hope that maybe the election rhetoric was just puffery to get him elected.

As Trump surrounds himself with ignorant and dangerous extremists, it is hard to see any good in the coming four years for America or the world.

Petty and angry responses to the coverage of the inauguration, termination of the Acting Attorney General, Paula Yates, with terms like ‘betrayal’ has given any undergrad psychologist enough information to diagnose Trump with a narcissistic, paranoid, vindictive personality disorder. This is the man who now has his finger on the Nuclear Button.

This compounding week of unbelievable events unfolding has left me dazed.

It feels like all the voices of reason, compassion and tolerance are stammering incoherently. It is as though the scale of the insanity, the crazed support of a blinded and increasingly belligerent right-wing populace has left us speechless and despairing.

Usually when I see an injustice in the world, I can write a song about it. But the song that came to me this week is about the absence of a song, I have no words to suggest that we look at the positives or we maintain hope in the future revival of humanity.

We are not in new territory here, the consequence of demonising a portion of society can be starkly observed in the Jedwabne progrom in Poland, 1941. This atrocity wasn’t perpetuated by the Nazi’s, but by 23 Polish men who burned alive at least 340 Jews from their own town. It is not by accident that I pick this example from World War II. The comparisons between the rise of Trump and Hitler have already ready been widely made. Others have suggested Mussolini as a more fitting parallel, neither one bodes well.

Trump has demonised women, reporters, Mexicans, Muslims, environmentalist and I am sure I have missed many more. This type of incite to hatred has real, and often fatal, consequences.

Here in Australia the same rhetoric is coming from the One Nation Party, and has already been popularised by the UK Independence Party leading to the vote to leave the European Union. Five years ago, these groups with extremist views still existed, but they were on the fringe, with a tiny following. Now they are setting the agenda, drawing a sizeable following, and having centre-right parties borrow from their policies.

Humanity is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith in the principles of kindness, tolerance and honesty; principles that underline the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is increasingly being ignored in favour of commercial and political interests.

Anyone who thinks that this is purely an ideological issue and part of the small swing from left to right that happens with democratic elections should look at the treatment of the members of the media that reported on the Women’s March held alongside the inauguration. Trump is set on ushering in the era of post-truth, alternative-facts and double-speak.

It is not that analysts, commentators and human rights activists are not pointing out the problems, it just seems that their words are lost in the wind of hate-speech and ignorance.

The one light I can point to is the behaviour of the US National Park Service tweeting about climate change in defiance of Trump (another great article). I suspect that a generation of young people inspired by Leslie Knope have joined the Park Service, and hold Leslie’s values as their own. Life imitating art in a glorious way.

As paralyzed as I feel, I must continue to record what is happening and how I feel about it, just like the last of the colonists on Miranda.

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