Many of the characters and stories in the Aidan Dream Detective books are based on real people, places and legends. I thought readers who enjoyed the book might want to learn a bit about them!
Aidan And the Dragon Girl Save the World
The Butterfly Dream
The story of the old sage who dreamed he was a butterfly, then woke up and wondered if he was a butterfly dreaming he was an old sage goes back at least 2300 years, when a famous and revered Chinese sage named Zhuangzi (also spelled Chuang Tzu in English; it is pronounced something like jwang tsuh) first told it. The story was later written down by his students and followers. I always loved that story!
There were several emperors named Wu in Chinese history, but our Emperor Wu was the only one who was a woman. She lived from 624 to 705 CE. China at that time was the largest empire in the world. As empress, before she became the emperor, she was already a strong voice in the government. She was 66 years old when she took the throne as emperor in 690 after her husband died.
She was the only woman to rule as emperor in all of Chinese history.
There was a story that Emperor Wu’s father was a dragon who lived in a lake near where she was born! In China, she is still honored by the people who live in the area of that lake.
Emperor Wu did many good things. One law she made, which I think says something important about the person and ruler that she was, increased the mourning period for mothers after they died so that it was the same as for fathers. Family and honoring parents was very important in Chinese culture. So why, thought Emperor Wu, should mothers not be honored just like fathers? Even though men were thought to be more important than women and were head of the family, she knew that wasn’t right. After all, look at her! She was the emperor for goodness sake! And don’t most children spend more time with their mothers, anyway? So why shouldn’t they honor their mothers just as much and mourn them as long as their fathers when they die! That was quite unusual thinking for those times.
There are old stories, and more recently movies, which portray Emperor Wu as absolutely evil, but these stories were probably originally told by men who resented a woman ruler or who wanted power for themselves. Some of the very same stories about evil deeds had been told about other, earlier, empresses. Trash talk goes way back!
That’s not to say she was all sweetness and light when it came to being in command. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to be responsible for the lives of tens of millions of people. In 682, just before her husband the emperor died, there were natural disasters that led to starvation and disease; corpses were piled high even in the streets of the capital! In 684, just when she was taking control after her husband died, she faced a rebel force 100,000 strong. Such rebellions could lead to chaos and suffering from yet more starvation and disease, as wars always do. She had to be tough. Some say that for a few years she went too far, that until 693 people who were her enemies were tortured and killed. Some were likely innocent! We don’t know just how involved she was, or if others were more responsible, but it’s hard to believe she had no idea what was going on in her name.
Mostly, though, she was actually quite just and forgiving of her enemies by the standards of the time, at least after 693, and even by the standards of our time now in many places around the world! This side of her has been portrayed to some extent in some stories and movies as well. I kind of like the Dr. Dee movies. Judge Dee (Di Renjie) is based on a real person who disagreed with much of what Emperor Wu did and many of her beliefs, but the fact that she asked for his help anyway because she still respected and trusted him despite his opposition says a lot about how she judged honesty, ability and character above all. How many powerful people, including teachers, bosses, and political leaders, act that way now?
Chinese dragons were called the Long. The Long were indeed creatures of water, and the most powerful were kings of the oceans. For that reason the Long were symbols of the emperor.
They were pictured as composites of different animals, like in the story. They lived many thousands of years and were shape-shifters just like Lotus/Princess Peace. They didn’t have wings, but could fly. The most powerful Long had vast powers. They could become as small as small can be or as large as the universe. That is hard to picture! To be as large as the universe would seem to me to BE the universe!
There is a legend of a dragon that was caught by a fisherman. The dragon was freed by Guan Yin, the spirit (Bodhisattva) of compassion. The dragon’s father, the Dragon King of the East Ocean, gave Guan Yin his daughter to be her assistant, helping suffering people and creatures of all types. They called her Long Niu (pronounced something like ‘new’), which means dragon girl. Emperor Wu was a big fan of Guan Yin.
Other Legendary Creatures
There are legends of three-legged crows in old China. The Rukh, or Roc, was a legendary bird in old Arabia, and it was supposed to be able to lift an elephant. There was also the phoenix, a legendary bird that was a bit different in China from Western versions. Problem is, like with using the word “dragon” for the Long, Western observers in the past, when first translating Chinese (and other Eastern) writings, struggled to fit Chinese (and other Eastern) ideas into Western ones, so we get these not-quite-right translations.
Wise-and-Able is a translation of the name Hui Neng (Hui is pronounced something like ‘way’) according to Red Pine, who translated a book of Hui Neng’s teachings. The name means that he was very wise and also very able to teach wisdom to others.
Hui Neng was a very important and famous Chan (in Japan Chan later became known as Zen) teacher who lived in China from 638 to 713.
There is a story that Hui Neng was so well known and so well respected that the Emperor Wu invited him to visit her, but he never seems to have made the trip.
There is also a legend that Hui Neng tamed a fierce dragon, first by tricking it into becoming small, then by teaching it the Way of Wisdom (his Chan teachings). I altered that quite a bit!
There is a story Hui Neng tells that one day he heard some people arguing as they watched a flag flapping in the wind.
“The flag moves,” said one person.
“No the wind moves,” said another.
“You’re both wrong, both wind and flag move,” said the third person.
Hui Neng told them, “Mind moves.” They immediately saw Hui Neng was right, and that he was a very wise man.
What a strange thing to say. Do you agree with Hui Neng? What do you think he meant? What if you are asleep on a still night and dreaming that a flag is waving in the wind? Do you think the flag in your dream waves because the dream wind blows?
The Friends on The Mountain Path
The laughing man by the stream was based on Hotai (pronounced ho-tie). Actually that is his Japanese name. He was originally Chinese and his name was Budai (pronounced like Boo-die or dye). There are statues of him in many Chinese restaurants that you may have seen. He was a wandering sage who went from village to village spreading joy. His name means “cloth bag” because he carried a bag around with gifts for kids. It was said that he would have exactly what you needed in his magic bag!
The broom man and his friend are based on Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and Shih-te, two strange and wonderful friends that lived in China. Han Shan was later called Kanzan in Japan and Shih-te was called Jittoku. Han Shan was a famous poet who lived in the mountains and was depicted in old Chinese and Japanese art holding a scroll. Shih-te was shown with a broom. They are shown laughing together, always with wild hair and disheveled clothes. They look like they are having just a lot of fun in the ancient paintings. They were thought to embody wisdom and compassion with a sense of humor.
Budai, Han Shan and Shih-te lived about 1200 years ago, a little after Emperor Wu and Hui Neng, but I thought they were part of the spirit of the times, so I cheated a little.
I got the name “Prosperowitz” from the character named “Prospero,” a sorcerer who loved the power of his magic books, in William Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. At one point (Act 4 Scene 1, lines 173 to 174), Prospero says:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”
The play was written 400 years ago so the language is odd, but “made on” means something more like “made of.” We are the stuff of dreams, of what our minds produce, like in the sage’s butterfly dream story.
Don’t worry about whether the butterfly comes first or the sage does. That’s the basis of the League of Dream Detectives, and why in the book the teacher of wisdom, Wise-and-Able, tells Aidan it doesn’t matter if he’s having a dream while he’s snoring in bed or if he’s wide awake, treat everything the same, with attention and compassion. Be brave and caring. And have fun; it’s all mind at play.
Some Sources For Background Reading Geared to Older Readers/Grown-Ups:
“Zhuangzi The Essential Writings” translated by Brook Ziporin
“Chuang Tzu The Inner Chapters” translated by David Hinton
“China land of dragons and emperors” by Adeline Yen Mah is a history of China written for young readers. There are nice short sections about dragons and Emperor Wu.
“Wu Zhao China’s Only Woman Emperor” is a biography in the Library of World Biography Series, Pearson Longman 2008. Definitely “R rated”.
“Emperor Wu and her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers” Columbia University Press 2015
Both books about Emperor Wu are by N. Harry Rothschild
“The Platform Sutra” is a collection of Hui Neng’s talks. I like the translation by Red Pine, but there are others.
“Hui Neng” in “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is available on line and was a very complete biography.
“Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism” by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman are interesting takes on mind and consciousness and the nature of reality with a scientific bent.
New characters and places and legends in book 2 “Aidan and the Mummy Girl Save the Universe”
Chang’an was the capital of Imperial China off and on for centuries. Emperor Wu also had another capital at Luoyang. Chang’an was at modern Xian. A lot is known about how it was laid out. The Great Goose Pagoda is still there, though not exactly in its original form, as it has been rebuilt somewhat over the centuries. It was a center where Buddhist monks did translate Indian texts into Chinese, something pursued during the Tang dynasty and earlier. The famous Chinese folktale “Monkey King” was based on the adventures of Xuan Zang, one such monk who in the early Tang dynasty made such a trip from China to India for spiritual writings to translate.
Xian is near where the first emperor Shi Huang di was buried and you can see his burial mound and the famous terracotta soldiers. He lived 900 years before Emperor Wu.
Pyrrho was a real post-philosopher who travelled with Alexander the Great on his conquests. The story about the shramana calling him on selling out for gold was supposed to be true. So are the stories about him studying with the shramanas and about the dogs and Pyrrho climbing the tree, then wondering if he should have or was being a hypocrite. In a way, Pyrrho’s teaching as a Greek philosopher when he returned home is a look at some of the earliest Buddhist teachings! He spent a lot of time meditating in the mountains when he returned to Greece, and was well respected, even beloved, for his kindness and compassion.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great of Macedonia (which is just north of Greece) was indeed a conqueror of many lands, Greece, Persia, Syria, Egypt and part of what is now India. He died soon after he started to return from India. When he went to Egypt he did meet with priests of Amun and considered himself the divine pharaoh, and the son of a god, whether Zeus or Amun was all the same to him. The ancients were very open-minded that way. They did honor each other’s gods, often adopting foreign gods, even if they usually thought their local gods were better! The treasuries of Egypt were his, and certainly some of that would have come from the coffers of the priests of Amun.
Egyptian Mythology and Cosmology: Gods and Demons
Egyptian mythology is vast and fascinating. The Egyptians had many ways of thinking about how the cosmos worked. Certainly they worshipped many gods that look weird to us, but they also clearly had much more deep and subtle teachings. The Greeks said their wisdom came from the Egyptians, and they weren’t talking about just funny looking gods and weird myths. The way the Egyptians looed at the cosmos was in some ways unchanged over 3000 years but in fact could f differ from one temple and priesthood to another, from place to place and indeed evolved over time. What Senenmut explains in the book about Amun and Ra and the gods is based on what some experts think at least some Egyptians may have believed.
Ammut, the “Book of the Dead,” Apep, the solar boat of the sun god traversing the underworld, the Duat, at night before rising in the east (including the cosmic battle with Apep and the sun god Re and his helper, Set), the judgment scene with the scales (and Maat, Anubis, Thoth, Osiris) were all as described in the “Book of the Dead.”
The ideas Senenmut has about the gods and Amun the hidden one are my interpretation based on what we know of Egyptian theology and cosmology.
The breath and wind are indeed the same words in ancient Egyptian, though there are other words used. But the “breath of life” is very important in ancient Egypt. Also, heart as mind being the same in Egypt, as in xin in Chinese, is true. So is the importance and power of the word. This is also seen in early Jewish thought. In fact early Jewish biblical thought does seem to have been influenced by their time in Egypt. For example, some psalms are very similar to Egyptian religious writings. Also the importance and power of words was important in both Egyptian and biblical thought. In addition, a recent biblical scholar pointed out that what gets translated as “soul” in the Hebrew bible is closer to accurately being translated as “breath of life,” a term the Egyptians used.
Senenmut in the book goes back and forth between whether Aidan is a ba or ka. These are different aspects of what in later times would be called the “soul.” I asked an Egyptologist about the differences between them when I was writing the book and he said as far as he can tell the Egyptians also changed their views on the details over time! Nonetheless, throughout their history the Egyptians cared a lot about what happens after death.
Hatshepsut was indeed a woman who declared herself pharaoh about 3500 years ago; there may have been other women who did so but Hatshepsut is the one we know most about. There are statues of her in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and her mortuary temple, Deir el-Bahri, is magnificent and you can visit it if you go to Egypt, along with her obelisks (though they are no longer topped with a mixture of silver and gold called electrum, they once were)!
Senenmut was not royal, but he was her right hand man. The statues pictured and described with Neferure (Hatshepsut’s daughter) are real and very sweet. And very unique; there weren’t other statues just like them, so Senenmut must have had them made because he cared so much for the girl. I made up Neferamun; if Neferure had children (and she may have) if they died early they may have not been recorded. The Egyptians often didn’t spend a lot of time making statues for their princes and princesses; there were too many of them and most either died young or just never held much power. No one knows what really happened to Senenmut after Hatshepsut died. I just made up the beekeeper part. There were beekeepers in ancient Egypt and they used jars like I describe. You can see his sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Nagas are as described in the book, shape shifting serpents connected to water and the Buddhist teachings. They are very important in early Hindu and Buddhist lore. Sometimes they are good, sometimes evil. Buddha was protected by one (Muchilinda) but had to subdue others in some legends. Nagas are found mostly in tales from South Asia. In fact the image used in the book is the seal of Thailand, a naga. They were good as protectors; they knew the value of the teachings, but they could be greedy and slaves to their wants and desires. Like people, I think. China had the long, water spirit dragons as described in the book. They were also shape shifting water spirits like the naga, sometimes friendly, sometimes not so much. Some nagas did breathe fire according to the legends. There is a legend about Buddha making peace between the nagas and garudas as alluded to in the book.
Gandhara was a real kingdom in the area that is now Afghanistan and Pakistan where early Buddhism took hold. There were famous giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan that were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. There is an ancient text that describes a debate between a Greek king who lived in the area a century or two after Alexander and a Buddhist monk that gives us insight into early Buddhism as practiced in that time and area. Taxila was an important ancient city that was on a major trade route.
Nalanda was also a real place. The historical Buddha lived part of his life in that area, and much later it became a great university as described in the book. You can still see ruins of the brick buildings there. The statistics about the number of students and what was taught there is based on real estimates. Much of later Buddhism, long along after the time of when Pyrrho was in India, was developed by the sages and scholars in Nalanda.
The teacher Kung is the political and ethical philosopher we in the West call Confucius. He lived about 2500 years ago. His philosophy and methods were really important in much of the Chinese Imperial history. To get a good position in the government, which many wanted, you needed to pass exams based on Confucian texts in many periods of Ch8inese Imperial history. Dee was a Confucian.
Magi and Zoroastrianism
The Persian Magi (singular magus) are much like what we think of as sorcerers, but were in fact priests of the religion of Zoroastrianism. The word magi is much like the word magician, right? Zoroastrian, an ancient religion did use fire in rituals. They were very into cosmic battles of good versus evil. Zoroastrians could be found in Chang’an!
The Way: Dao and Maat and Dharma
The Way, as in the way of wisdom, is Dao, pronounced something like “dow” (ow as in ow that hurts). Dao is similar to the Indian Buddhist word Dharma (the teachings and Way of Buddhism) and the Egyptian Maat. All mean the Truth of how the Cosmos functions.
The Way of Wisdom, or the teachings of the original teacher, the enlightened one, is a term I am using for Buddhism (that term was invented much later; they didn’t think in terms of that kind of “-ism”). Buddha just means the one who is awake, or enlightened one; it is more of a title than a name. The historical Buddha was supposedly named Siddhartha or the Shakya clan. And lived about 2400 years ago in Northern India, where Nalanda is still found.
Buddha Not Stopping a War and Crying
That is an ancient story about the Buddha. In some versions he stopped the war, in others, like in the book, he doesn’t. I prefer those versions. They have a ring of truth, and an important lesson. It reminds me of the New Testament where the shortest sentence in the King James version is “Jesus wept.” And so do we sometimes; we are in good company.
(CE is common era, which is what the Western calendar is, the year as we know it, say 2019 as I write this, and BCE means before common era, that is, before the year 1 by our Western calendar)
700 CE (1300 years ago):
Emperor Wu and Dee and when Aidan visits Nalanda. The university at Nalanda had been there for centuries and would last a few centuries longer. In china this is the during the Tang dynasty; though technically Emperor Wu changed the name for a few years to the Zhou (pronounced something like “joe”) dynasty.
300 BCE (2300 years ago): Alexander the Great of Macedonia reaches the Indus river after conquering Persia, Syria and Egypt.
400 BCE (2400 years ago): The historical Buddha taught. Buddha just means the awakened or enlightened one. Buddha wasn’t a god or divine being, but a prince who dropped out and studied with yogis much like the shramanas, but then went off on his own to meditate and get enlightened. Much of what we know about him is legend, but someone started the teachings that later developed into what we now call Buddhism.
1500 BCE (3500 years ago): the early 18thdynasty in New Kingdom Egypt. Hatshepsut’s stepson Thutmose followed her, one of several pharaohs named Thutmose. Mose means “son” and is the root of the name Moses!
A Sketched Map of Key Locations: