Gonzales, Ava Vivian

Of Mountains, Myths, Maya, and M-Theory

by Ava Vivian Gonzales


"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you just don't give up."                                                                                                                                                                                                 Stephen Hawking


The idea of how the human came into existence on earth from the remnant of stars in a once empty cosmos was one that I managed to evade all my life—until I found myself enrolled in the Asian Social Institute’s Applied Cosmic Anthropology (ACA) program. Inspired by discussions held in Dr. Dejillas’s class this semester, the following is an autobiographical narrative attempting to articulate convergences in the idea of myth, M-theory, and the Buddhist concept of maya against the backdrop of Mt. Makiling, where I spent a portion of my childhood, and where my parents currently live.           

In college, musings on the universe, my existence, and graduating with honors took a backseat when I got accepted into the Philippine Collegian during the second semester of my freshman year. I took the qualifying exam to accompany a blockmate who I often hitched a ride with around campus. What to me was nothing more than a well-meaning gesture for a friend led to my being part of the Collegian's brand of outspoken and courageous journalism that has resounded through the halls of the University of the Philippines (UP) and out into the nation's streets. Writing became a defiance to injustice and a call to action: land to the tiller, just wages for the worker, and liberating education for all. In the grind of weekly presswork, my blockmate quit. I, meanwhile, spent more time learning how to phrase the call to action in the most eloquent prose, content with merely passing classes that seldom held my interest. The three ills of Philippine society (imperyalismo, biyurukrat-kapitalismo, at piyudalismo) were the only possible ways of looking at things and of understanding who and what I was. I had, to borrow Stephen Hawking’s turn of phrase, forgotten to look up at the stars.

In my junior year, I was chosen as editor of the Collegian's Kultura section, and in my senior year, I became the publication’s Managing Editor. The pressure to live up to expectations was compounded by the fact that some colleagues/former friends felt insulted I was chosen over them. To avoid intrigue and to make sure I would graduate on time, in the summer of my junior year, I cross-registered at the UP Los Baños campus, taking up Physical Education and Rizal units I had neglected. I stayed in a dorm with my mother that was located near the entrance of Mt. Makiling’s Forest Reserve.

Mt. Makiling is named after the female diwata (god) who lives on it. Literary scholar Rosario Cruz-Lucero asserts that the transformation of Mariang Makiling from a powerful female diwata (god) into an ephemeral encantada (fairy) is a prime example of the epistemic violence Spanish colonization has wrought on Philippine mythology. Our pre-colonial myths are filled with strong female characters such as Mebuyan, the goddess of fertility and death, and Mungan, said to be the first shaman, since she received the gift of the betelnut chew from the gods. As a child, I remember being told the story of Mariang Makiling, who lives in a secret cave on her mountain. She once moved freely among people, helping them in any way she could. She shared her knowledge about plants, ensuring bountiful harvests, cured the sick using herbs, and lent people her personal belongings. Mariang Makiling’s peaceful co-existence with mortals continued until the man she was in love with asked to borrow items to use on his wedding day. Although heartbroken, she provided her beloved and his bride with gold utensils, the finest textiles, and jewelry to use, which the couple forgot to return. When they realized what they had done, they went searching for her, but she no longer appeared to them.[1]

There were many times that I felt I had entered another world whenever I spent time on Mt. Makiling. The summer of my junior year in college, I was in a world that did not revolve around deadlines and word counts but rather, the growing of plants and the harvesting of their fruits and flowers. It was the scent of freshly cut grass that woke me on mornings, and the faint brassy smell of the earth accompanied me throughout the day. At night, I breathed in the sugary aroma of flowers as I beheld the night sky. Sometimes I lay down on the soft grass beneath a tree to see the stars in between the silhouette of leaves.[2]

I wonder in hindsight if the reveries I would often have on Mt. Makiling are projections of my unconscious borne out of repeatedly observing the night sky, filled as it is with stars and planets that our human ancestors named after deities. What for the Greeks is the story of Andromeda and Philoctetes could very well be the Visayan myth of Alunsina and Tungkung Langit or the Bagobos’s story of Tuglibong. Like versions of the string theory explaining the behavior of subatomic particles collectively known as M-theory, the myths our ancestors used to explain the formation of stars in the sky are different accounts of the same thing.

Three years ago, I again sought refuge on Mt. Makiling. If someone had asked me in 2009 what I imagined myself to be three years into the future, I would not have mentioned a plant-based diet, Stevens-Johnson’s Syndrome, or living by the day as a freelance writer. I was thirty-three, subsisted on fast food, and taught college English. I loved my work and if it were taken from me I thought my soul would wither. Teaching was how I had pictured each day of my life for years to come and my imagination simply refused to travel beyond the classroom—until I spent the summer of 2009 covered in rashes, unable to breathe, talk, walk, or sleep. I felt hot, but chills ran all over my body. I was pale and weak and could not walk very far. But more than being unable to get around, I dreaded that I would be too weak to even read. I feared that words would be nothing more but aural, different things deprived of their look and measure.

To distract myself from pain, I reminded myself that on Mt. Makiling, nothing is ever hard or permanent; everything is constantly changing, and my symptoms will soon come to pass in either my healing or death. Although I knew nothing about Buddhist teaching at that time, my thoughts were focused on impermanence and suffering, along with the desire to free myself and those who suffered because of my illness. My family was worried and my students thought I had abandoned them. I first learned about Buddhism and its meditation practice as an ACA student. Afterwards, by some affinity unknown even to myself, I came across aspects of what Buddhists consider the natural duty of all living creatures (Dharma) through a series of synchronicities.[3] Although the exact reason, rhyme, and rhythm for these synchronicities still remain unclear to me, I know that only good can come from them.     

Buddhism, which has flourished for over two millennia, teaches that everything that arises from causes and conditions is impermanent, especially those that pertain to human life. Suffering is due to a false perspective of reality, a belief in the world of forms and  appearances that someone accepts as the only reality, when in fact it is only an illusion (maya). The failure to realize the impermanent nature of things is what keeps sentient beings in the cycle of existence (samsara). Attachment, anger, and ignorance arise from clinging to maya, which in turn produces affective emotions responsible for the imbalances that cause illness. Transformation must occur since the mind that creates the solution cannot be the same one that created the problem. Transformation differs for each person, based on one’s personality, temperament, and capabilities. A mind that is fully aware of how the universe works is less susceptible to maya.

If I had known about string theory in the summer of 2009, I would have used it as a metaphor for what it is like living on Mt. Makiling. Rather than a zero-dimensional point, the mountain should be thought of as a vibrating entity. Pulsating with life, its forest is unstoppably fertile, so much so that it always seems to be reclaiming portions that people have made their own. Garter snakes jostle for space among computer cords in our home office, geckos appear behind doors, and the sound of birds tapping their beaks on window panes lets us know that morning has broken. Whenever I think I’ve figured out some semblance of order in my life, I find myself on Mt. Makiling, surrounded by incongruity and paradox. In the summer of 2009, what led me back to the mountain is a cautionary tale, a horror story of something going terribly wrong when one least expects it: the nine rounds of antibiotics prescribed to treat a mass under my chin and the bacterial colonization of a deadly antibiotic-resistant Enteroccocus clocae strain dismissed as a simple urinary tract infection led to my acquiring a rare incurable autoimmune disorder called Stevens-Johnson’s Syndrome, or SJS.

Allopathic medicine’s fragmented approach of focusing only on the physical body while ignoring the mind and spirit contributes to disease. Many ancient spiritual traditions see the connection between illness and one’s spiritual state. Buddhists believe that illness is what results when one indulges in non-virtuous deeds. Hindus believe that life energy or prana is absorbed, controlled, and distributed to the body’s major organs through energy centers called chakras. Prana is known as chi or ki among the Chinese, recognized as pneuma among Greeks, mana among Polynesians, and ruah or “the breath of life” among Hebrews. Like the myths that were told to justify the presence of constellations in the night sky, ancient peoples had different names for the same energy that allows humans to live, breathe, move, and be. Illness is what occurs when there is either a congestion or a depletion in a person’s energy (etheric) body or any of the chakras.

Drawing prana from nature (earth, trees, air, sun) and the invocation for divine blessings alongside meditation re-energizes the etheric body and activates one’s chakras. Perhaps this is one reason why I find Mt. Makiling soothing, especially in times of distress. Seven major chakras run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. For intuitive healer Caroline Myss, each chakra also represents a particular life lesson that all human beings must learn. The power and self-knowledge a person acquires through the mastery of each chakra is integrated into one’s spirit. When this happens, the person advances towards a spiritual consciousness in a manner reminiscent of a hero’s journey.     

Modern physicists have gathered increasing evidence to prove what ancient peoples somehow knew—that everything is made up of energy at various frequencies and that the human body resonates to different tones. When one is healthy, the tones are balanced, but the frequency is off when one is sick. Hindus believe that a pulse of sound lies at the heart of the universe, a sacred vibration they call nada brahma, or ‘sound is God.’ Similarly, according to string theory, subatomic particles and all the forms of energy in the universe could be constructed by hypothetical building blocks of one-dimensional strings possessing the dimension of length. Vibrating in multiple dimensions, these strings appear in three-dimensional space as matter, light or gravity depending on the way they vibrate. It is the vibration of strings that gives rise to every form of matter or energy.

By asserting that these strings are one-dimensional slices of a two-dimensional membrane vibrating in 11-dimensional space, string theorist Edward Witten’s M-Theory brought all the string theories together by postulating that the five different versions  point to the same thing from different perspectives. Witten did not specifically define what the “M” in M-Theory stood for. It is generally accepted that the “M” means “membrane” although it has been substituted with the terms “mystery,” “magic,” “matrix,”  “monster,” and “mother.”

Humans are familiar with four space-time dimensions: height, width, length, and time. The other dimensions remain unseen and are difficult to detect because they are tightly curled up. I wonder if any of these hidden dimensions contain the Pure Lands (Dewachen) that according to Mahayana cosmology, are where beings can cultivate their enlightenment or buddhahood unhindered. Although scientists believe that the hidden dimensions hold the key to re-writing the universe, I won’t be surprised if experiments indirectly detecting them will reveal other “secrets” of the universe that ancient peoples have known all along.

[1] There are those who believe that to this day, Mariang Makiling manifests herself in different forms. The most recent story is that of an old woman who appeared in the area that Los Baños folk call Crossing, a four-way intersection along the main highway. The stranger asked for a glass of water, saying she was very thirsty. After being given a glass of water to drink, she uttered a cryptic warning that many such glasses could be filled by the water that will come from the mountain and that the road will turn into a river. Since it happened to be an unusually hot day, onlookers dismissed the warning as the rant of a crazy old woman. Three days later, in the wrath of typhoon Milenyo, the national highway served as a catch basin for the mixture of mud and rainwater from Mt. Makiling. Floodwaters reached up to six feet in some areas and the highway was unpassable for many months. People recalled the thirsty old woman and word spread that Mariang Makiling had forewarned them of the deluge.

[2] That summer I had my first encounter with a white luminous human-like creature whose large eyes seemed to glow. I dismissed the incident as nothing more than a dream. Another encounter with the creature occurred years later, when I was in graduate school. As in the previous encounter, I was alone. When I went to answer an insistent knocking on the front door, nobody was there. The knocking continued and something told me to look down as I held the door open. It was then that I saw the creature again. It pointed to a gigantic white disc on the open field next to the abandoned tennis court in front of our house. It seemed to be telling me to hurry since it was time to go. I saw my brother climbing the steps that led to a small opening in the disc. When I opened my mouth to call my brother, the creature vanished as abruptly as it appeared.

2I was able to attend His Holiness’s the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa’s second visit to the Philippines in June 2012 and the historic first visit of His Holiness, the 41st Sakya Trizin’s in August 2012. During the 17th Karmapa’s visit, I listened to teachings on blessing and received the Amitabha Empowerment, which helps one realize her true self and to radiate with Amitabha’s compassion, wisdom, and light. At the 41st Sakya Trizin’s visit, I listened to teachings on the wisdom of non-attachment and received the Arya Manjushri  Empowerment, which enhances one’s intellect and insight to overcome ignorance and realize the ultimate nature of reality.