“I wish to stop being Borges”
- Borges

The journey – thankfully, not mine – begins in central Iraq. The protagonist turns twenty when his spiritual twin visits him in a dream, ordering him to improve the teachings of an eccentric man killed two centuries ago for a religion he didn’t even plan to create. Exactly twelve years later, again in a dream, the spiritual twin comes back to repeat his request, and the young man awakens, declares himself an apostle of Jesus Christ and goes to India with a clear intent: to create a religion.

cao an temple

Standing on the shore of the muddy Jin river, I’m struggling to understand the concept of spiritual twin. To eyes trained on European dimensions, everything in Asia seems slightly frightening: the intimidating mountain chains that jut out far above the clouds, the yellow void of the deserts, the rivers whose other shore can barely be made out in the mist, the unimaginable masses of people in perpetual motion. In some translations, I remember, it is a celestial or divine twin. Do I have one too? Philosophers of Modal Realism claim that each theoretically possible world is as real as the one we live in, and some of them believe (or at least pretend to believe) that in each one of those worlds there is one me, just a little different. I also remember reading, in Karl Jung’s Memories, that early on in his childhood he discovered a separate person inside himself – an old man with a white wig and iron-buckled shoes – with whom he sometimes conversed. If Buddha was right and “I” really is an illusion, or an overarching process in the cerebral cortex evolved to oversee everything else (including itself), then why, beside the main I-process, there couldn’t be some minor ones, half-conscious, the parasitic frequencies that huddle around the pure tone each time a hammer hits a bell?

After India, where he got acquainted with the local religious ideas, in the mid-third century A.D. Mani returns to Persia in order to teach the religion bestowed upon him by the spiritual twin. He teaches his disciples that there are two worlds: good – light – spirit on one side, vs. evil – darkness – matter on the other. Our universe wasn’t created by God, but by a lower-rank malicious creature that belongs to the material world. That is why our world is essentially evil and unbearably painful, and our task is to somehow extricate ourselves from it. The human soul fell from the world of Light and got tangled up in materiality. However, within itself it still contains thin Light threads, strong and fragile at the same time, as the last link to that other, better place – and the hope of a return.

A whole decade and a half earlier, I stared at the entry portal of Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona thinking of Neo-Platonists: in the middle there is the god, emanating logos, which emanates the world soul, which in turn emanates our small individual souls and finally the matter. It seemed to me that, in Gaudi’s amorphous shapes differentiating from the center towards the edges, I could detect some sort of a homage, a tip-of-the-hat to old Plotinus and his teachings. All of that, of course, only existed in my imagination, for which Gaudi himself is at least partially to blame, leaving his cathedral unfinished when he was run over by a tram car, and then ignored in the hospital because he looked like a beggar; if only he had put some more effort into selecting his attire for the day, maybe the cathedral would have been finished and my musings avoided. Be that as it may, it is almost certain that Mani nicked some of his ideas from the workbook of Plotinus, his contemporary: the farther we are from the source of Light, the more defined, physical, material and miserable we are. Simply put: the more material we are, the more it hurts.

sagrada familia

In one of my favorite short stories, H. L. Borges tries to understand Averroes, an Andalusian philosopher who tries to understand Aristotle, and in the end nobody manages to understand anybody, each remaining locked in his own time-space and isolated in the bubble of his great misunderstanding – one of the few constants that we, human beings, can always count on. At the end of the story everyone disappears, dissolved in the impossibility of touch, as Borges realizes the futility of his effort. Sometimes I play that game myself: I choose someone – a beggar in the street or a historical figure, a man sitting opposite me on the metro or one of my distant ancestors from a faded sepia photograph – and try to imagine being him or her. What do I see? What do I feel inside my chest? What am I thinking about? If all the people who have ever lived are connected by some invisible (light?) threads, I say to myself, maybe it would be possible to somehow pick out the thread between any two randomly selected human beings, and then carefully follow it?

Still on the shore of the same Jin river, now under an umbrella, I look at a small boat with fishermen pulling oysters out of a wide estuary. Green bushy aquatic plants float on the surface, and the older houses in this suburb – that once used to be a separate village – are built out of those same oysters. I relish in the knowledge that this very place, the city of Quanzhou, used to be the largest port of the Old World, from which Marco Polo set sails on his final journey home. At about that time, and also from here, the fleet of Kublai Khan sailed out on his ambitious conquest of Japan. Their ships were pulverized by a typhoon (which even now, as the weather forecast informs me, creeps somewhere just behind the horizon). The typhoon that saved Japan from the Mongolian invasion earned itself the name of kami kaze, the divine wind. And in those hard and murky times, on a mountain on the other side of the city, a statue was being carved following the order by a divine twin.

oyster house

Riffling through scanned specimens of Manichaean scripts (feeling grateful to the Light Deity for the miracle of Internet that enables me to never leave my house) on the websites of various museums, archives and universities, I discover that, in fact, very little has been preserved. The pivotal document on Mani and his religion was discovered in Egypt in 1969, which was hardly breaking news in the year when humans, among other endeavors, landed on the Moon (at the same time planning to destroy their own planet with nuclear bombs). The text was written in Greek by Mani’s disciples “based on his own words”. That was how we found out about the syzigos, the spiritual twin. Using this document, as well as the scripts found in the oasis of Turfan in the Chinese Taklimakan desert, in the Thousand Buddhas Caves in Dunhuang and the writings of St. Augustine (a former Manichaean who abandoned the religion due to a disagreement about the nature of evil), L. J. R. Ort wrote a book in which there is a chapter entitled Mani’s Perception of Self. There I learn that the spiritual twin, after the second revelation in a dream, stayed with Mani for the rest of his life, even at the moment of his death in a Persian prison. He whispered into his ear what to say, how to preach, and traveled around the world with him helping him in the battle against the evil forces of the darkness/matter. I also learn that the young Mani first shared his revelation with his father, who was – upon hearing all that – “amazed” and soon afterwards “converted”. And it is exactly here, says Ort, that we can for a brief moment hear the voice of Mani himself, telling about his childhood and his father. The father who became the first disciple of his own son.

 manichaean manuscript
Illustration from a Manichaean manuscript, 8th-9th century.

At the other end of Quanzhou, climbing towards a small mountain temple, I wonder what happens in a man to make him wish to create a new religion. (The same conundrum bugs me when it comes to politicians, military leaders, statesmen: greedy charismatic egomaniacs, or idealists to the bone?) Pulling on the thin Light thread I try to fathom who is on the other side: a trickster or a prophet, an villain or a madman? Or neither? Or all?

Psychologist V. S. Ramachandran writes that localized epileptic seizures in the brain’s temporal lobe sometimes induce the feeling of direct communication with god. People who suffer from this kind of seizures often claim to have seen the all-illuminating light, fathomed the absolute truth that lies beyond the grasp of mortals, clearly felt the presence of angels or heard god’s voice. The effects of the seizure are long-lasting: obsession with theological, philosophical and metaphysical topics and an unbearable urge to talk about it; hypergraphia (compulsive writing, in this case of religious manifestos, treatises, essays, theories). He also mentions his patients who showed him their lengthy manuscripts full of complex symbols and explanations: the holy books with only a single follower. In the late 20th century, scientists Koren and Persinger made a contraption aptly named “God helmet”, which uses fluctuating magnetic field to stimulate the brain’s temporal lobe. The subjects who underwent the stimulation allegedly attested to direct communication with god, visions of long-passed relatives, or the presence of an unidentified conscious being (in a BBC documentary, Richard Dawkins put the helmet on his head and felt, in his words, just slightly dizzy).

At the foot of the rock on which the temple was built there is a giant conifer, with a plaque that informs us that the tree was one thousand years old as of March 2016. For a moment I ponder the insufferable Chinese logic – instead of writing the year when the tree was planted, they always write how old it was in the year when it was dated, meaning that in the future every visitor will have to do the adding up – but I instantly abandon that futile train of thought and put my foot on the first step of the staircase that leads to a small building made of red bricks and stones of varying shapes and shades, the temple whose religious affiliation seems impossible to determine from the outside. On the way I stop to take a photo of a wacky insect, who eyes me wearily and then slowly moves away.


Somewhere towards the end of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins puts forward the possibility that ideas evolve and fight for dominance in a way akin to the evolution of living things. Since the unit of information for the development of living things is gene, he suggests the term meme as the unit of the idea. Some memes are more successful – for example, those that make up the greatest ideologies of our world – while others aren’t particularly tough, so they eventually drop out of the meme pool. Religious ideas – we were told in our Marxist-oriented schools in the penultimate decade of the 20th century – developed as the result of the human inability to understand the forces of nature, from our fear of chaos and randomness. The universe – even if it really was created by a lower-rank malicious demiurge – obviously wasn’t made for us. Not only are we not located at the center of it, but even in our own galaxy we are tucked away at the deep periphery, and so on, in short – nobody and nothing cares about us. But at the same time we feel that we have to matter for something. How to make up these two extremes? At his ripe age, Leo Tolstoy was so tormented by that question that he removed the belt from his trousers every night before going to sleep, lest he should give in to the urge to hang himself: how can something finite, such as human life, have a meaning that is infinite? If only we could somehow forget about the cruel indifference of the universe, wriggle out of the meaninglessness and avoid death! And if we can’t – well, let us at least shut our eyes and avoid ourselves. The ideas that help us do that (or at least promise to do so) are the most successful memes in the history of mankind (except, of course, for those of you who wish to stop being Borges).

The temple on the rock that rises before me was built a thousand years ago, at which time a tree was planted in front of it. A thousand years, I mumble, a bit theatrically, trying to envision the hand putting a sapling into the hole, then burying the root and patting the soil. The planter disappears, and instead of him, in that very same place, I stand under a large canopy. The thought travels the distance of a thousand years in one second.

thousand year old tree cao an

Mani envisaged his teaching as an integrative, ecumenical religion based on Zoroastrianism, supplemented with dualist (good-evil, spirit-matter, light-darkness) teachings of various Gnostics, and then stuffed with the ideas and iconography of other religions that he came into touch with. In a temple in Japan (Seiun Ji, city of Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture) an image of Buddha Jesus has recently been discovered. Some historians of religion believe that the image was made in the Manichaean community in Southern China, in the 12th or 13th century. Buddha Jesus has slant eyes and a wide halo, sits cross-legged on a lotus flower, and holds a golden cross on his chest. The memes of Jesus and Buddha, mixed in the embrace of Manichaeism, merged into one.

aristotle buddha jesus

Left: Aristotle with a disciple, Arab illustration from 1220. Right: Manichaean Buddha Jesus.

The day before, I clambered around a forested hill in this same city of Quanzhou, looking for old Islamic tombs from the times of Sinbad the Sailor and thinking how everything that comes to China sooner or later becomes China. On the weed-covered tombstones, the image of lotus flower and the bismilah ir-rahman ir-rahim written in Arabic calligraphy sit next to each other. Lotus is also present in the old mosque in the city center, that to an untrained eye looks exactly like any Chinese temple, plus a minaret. The Mongols led by Kublai Khan conquered China in the 13th century, but already the next generations of Mongol emperors spoke Chinese and called themselves the Yuan Dynasty. The great civilization relentlessly pulls towards itself, but its gravity at the same time distorts and adjusts everything to its own needs: Jesus gets to keep his cross, but somewhere along the way he also becomes Chinese, crosses his legs and takes a seat among lotus petals.

islamic tomb quanzhou

The small plateau is deserted. The Temple of the Buddha of Light, the arrow says. Under it there’s another arrow that says toilet. The door is open. In semi-darkness on the right side I see another door leading off to a small side chamber, in which an old woman in worn-out clothes sits, staring absent-mindedly at nothing and clicking a rosary in her hand. On the table in front of her there are several jars with pickles or fruit preserves.

Manichaeism is long forgotten in its Middle Eastern cradle. Then it also disappeared in the West, lingering on for a little longer in the mountains, disguised as the religion of the Bogomils in the Balkans (which then lingered on just a little longer disguised in the person of a crackpot painter Lazar Drljača). For the longest time it survived in Southern China, as a once large community that crumbled from one century to another, to finally disintegrate completely. From a religion that once spread on three continents, all that remains is a couple of torn scraps of parchment, several books on history of religion that nobody reads... and a miniature mountain temple, today a Buddhist one, without any priests.

A thousand years, I repeat, mockingly, to myself. And if any priest comes to confess me and give me communion, tell him to make himself scarce, and may he give me his curse! ... Men like me should live a thousand years! – bellows, from the edge of death, the sick, aged Zorba the Greek, or at least the man who served as the inspiration for the literary character, if the memoirs of Nikos Kazantzakis – written on the brink of his own death – are to be trusted. But how can one live a thousand years? I will die twice, whispers Ivo Andrić into my ear with some self-pity, once when I leave this world... and the second time... when my lifework disappears.

Eyes are getting used to the darkness. In front of me, in his last temple, sits the Buddha of Light.

He is carved out of living rock that at the same time makes the head wall of the temple and the mountain on whose ledge the whole building sits. At first sight he looks like any typical statue of Buddha, but a closer inspection reveals secret signs, tiny traces, bits of the riddle carved in 1339 during the great renovation of the temple, which had then already been more than three centuries old. Long hair falls over his shoulders, and his beard flows down his chest. His brow is prominent and his jaw strong and pronounced. Instead of looking down, as Buddha normally does, Mani is looking straight at me. Instead of having one palm facing upwards and the other downwards according to the Buddhist tradition, both his hands rest on his belly, palms upturned.

Old weasel Borges once wrote that it doesn’t matter what Buddha is, but what he becomes. By the same token, one might say that it doesn’t matter what Mani was – an overexcited boy, a self-proclaimed prophet, a hardcore idealist, a charlatan, the owner of an atypical brain, a twin of his spiritual twin – but what he became.

statue of mani cao an

The statue sits behind a protective glass wall, with a white rectangular reflection of the main door and, trapped in it, my confused face, broken in the glass. In the background there is the crown of the millennial tree and an adjacent hilltop. And I can’t help but wonder how many of us, following the complicated Light threads of our lives, have lingered here, passing a brief moment on his doorstep? And we have all gone.

Disappeared, once or twice.