Monday, November 7, 2016

Moonstones and Traveling Between the Sacred and Profane



Recently, in the heat of Cambodia, moonstones like these mesmerized me with their beauty and wisdom about how human beings navigate the complexity of the world, ever moving between awe and production, creation and rest, forgetfulness and remembrance.

Moonstones are one of the architectural features of the early (late ninth century C.E.) large mountain temples in Cambodia that the later, more famous temples of Angkor Wat (twelfth century C.E.) do not share. After visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other later temples and being suitably impressed by their scale, grandeur, and art, I came upon these moonstones and fell in love. They’re found in three temples in Roluos, about 15 kilometers East of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei, in Hariharalaya, an early capital of the Khmer empire.

Here’s what I love about moonstones: they physically mark, support, and guide the transition one makes from the profane to the sacred, from the ordinary world of work and production to the realm that breaks with the ordinary world in play, ritual, music, and dancing. I moved up and down them many times in each of these early Khmer temples. They’re not placed only at the entrance to the outer enclosure, but at every juncture between realms in the temple complex. As I slowly mounted the lovely, curved shapes, I was grateful for their wisdom, reminding me that one doesn’t leap into the sacred, one doesn’t intrude upon it or storm it: one prepares to enter it—heart, heart, mind, spirit, and body. And as I carefully made my way down those massive yet delicate carved stones, I was grateful for the acknowledgment that when one has dwelt for a time, a moment, in that extraordinary time, that realm apart, one does not throw oneself back into life willy-nilly, all of a sudden: one renters slowly, mindful of where one has come from, where one has been, and where one is going. These weighty moonstones distinguished the two worlds, two ways of being, without dividing them; they defined their boundaries while connecting them, forming a material bridge for human bodies to walk on, passing from one to the other and back again.

I believe this moonstone reminder is still essential in the twenty-first century, even for those of us who now see or experience or live the sacred in the secular, who don’t frequent temples, who don’t believe in sacred places. However we conceive of the sacred and the secular, we still need to be mindful of the difference between them, the connection between them, and the dangers and possibilities of passing from one to the other. We still need a grounded and grounding way to walk between them in grace, so we don’t get stuck in one or the other. Perhaps that was one of the truths of Jacob’s dream, when he rested his head upon a rock for a pillow: like those angels ascending and descending a stairway between heaven and earth, we need to live in both worlds, we need to find a stairway, a moonstone that connects two ways of being for us, helps us into an experience of the sacred and out again. Back and forth, back and forth. We need to travel between the two constantly. To live in one world only is to impoverish ourselves.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Is “Haram” in the West about Boko Haram? Religion


What is “haram” (forbidden) in the West about Boko Haram? Speaking a difficult truth: that this reign of terror is a war on Christians.

In the world of Boko Haram, horrors abound: murder, rape, starvation, brainwashing. We in the West report on these atrocities. We hand-wring. We send delegations. What we are forbidden to do is to speak about why this is happening. We focus on the age and gender of the victims: we send help to find “missing girls,” hold #BringBackOurGirls protests, decry the “abuse of women,” and puzzle over how young women can become suicide bombers willing to kill their own families and neighbors. We do not say about these women, “They are Christians.” Not just “minorities” and “civilians” but Christians. These women’s suffering is multiplied: they are targeted as victims because they are Christians and because—as in all wars—they are women.

As for the perpetrators of this violence, we politely use a name whose meaning we barely grasp, “Boko Haram,” which is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” Or we refer to them in abstractions, such as “one of the world’s deadliest extremist groups.” We do not call them by the names they use for themselves, “People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad” or, most recently, “Islamic State West Africa Province, ISWAP.” We do not call them soldiers of Islam, defenders of the faith, crusaders for the one true religion, bent on converting all Christians to Islam and willing to kill them if they refuse.

The women captured by Boko Haram speak more freely than we do. Rahila Amos, one of the Nigerian villagers captured by Boko Haram, tells of how she and other women, with their surviving children, were rounded up and held in a ditch for days, their massacred fathers, husbands, and children lying nearby. One day a fighter stood over them and asked one question: “Do you want to follow Christ, or become a Muslim?” (New York Times, April 7, 2016) Translation for post-Christian, secular Westerners, those who have forgotten or never experienced the power of genuine faith: If you are a Christian, if you a remain faithful follower of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, you will die. If you deny Christ, renounce your God, and become a Muslim, we will let you live.”

Boko Haram is waging war on Christians. But we in the West, we who laud and defend our freedom of speech, are not free to say this. Our secularized language allows us to speak intelligently only of age, gender, ethnicity, and other social, political, and economic constructs. We are ignorant of religion as a way of life and how a deeply lived life of faith can transform the world, for good as well as for evil. We are captive to our post-Enlightenment view of religion as “irrational”: if religion is primitivism, what can you expect but nonsense, hatred, and violence? We are slaves to our commitment to neutrality and the equality of all religions: who are we to make judgements about the actions of people of this religion or that?

We are prisoners of our own secularism, and the walls we have constructed around ourselves—walls that separate what is forbidden to talk about and what is not—are blinding us to the religious persecution, torture, and massacres that are happening in village after village in West Africa. Religion should not be haram.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Are We Silent When Christians Are Massacred in Lahore?


27 March 2016. Lahore, Pakistan. Easter Sunday. A peaceful park. Hundreds of families picnicking and playing, laughing, running, breaking bread together, relishing foods specially prepared for the holiday, celebrating with loved ones, celebrating the most important religious holiday of their faith, a holy day commemorating the triumph of good over evil, compassion over intolerance, wisdom over violence, love over torture, hope over despair, life over death—Jesus Christ risen from a battered, broken, and bleeding body.

A welling up of hope in a world falling daily to new depths of violence.
Into this affirmation of life, Muslim extremists carried bombs.

70 killed. Over 300 bleeding, mutilated, scarred eternally. Mostly mothers and children. Murdered.

Because they were Christians. To the Muslims who murdered them, they were not just Christians but “those who stubbornly reject the one, the only, the final truth of Islam” and therefore deserving of death.

And we say nothing. No colors of the Pakistani flag lighting up the Eiffel tower in solidarity. No presidential speeches of sympathy and support. No cries of “Je suis Chrétien.”

Why this silence? Are we embarrassed by religion? Are we so comfortable in our secular world and safe in our assumption that the separation of church and state is shared by all people that we can see victims of terrorists acts only when they appear to us as random, generalized, secularized, “Western,” globalized? Only when terrorist attacks are perpetrated in places like theaters, nightclubs, bars, airports, and subways? Are we cowed by political correctness? Afraid of being charged with Islamophobia?

Why is it that we aren’t calling attention to the Christian faith of the innocent victims of the Lahore massacre, even though that is exactly why they were targeted, because they were Christians? Why is it that we don’t say too loudly that the people attacked in the kosher grocery store in Paris were targeted because they were Jews? Is it because as good post-Enlightenment people we don’t think religion should matter? Does matter? Because, confident that we’ve put all the religious wars of the past behind us, and besotted with economic and sociological theories for all action on the world stage, we don’t recognize the power of religious faith to motivate people?

Why are we not saying that these “terrorists,” these “suicide bombers,” these “evil-doers,” these “radicals,” these “extremists” are Muslims? To say this is not Islamophobia. To say this is not to say all Muslims are terrorists or that Islam is, in essence, a religion of violence. Quite the contrary. Throughout my professional and personal life, I have been a strong critic of Christianity’s abuse of power and its use of violence, and also of Jewish extremism and violence, while maintaining respect, appreciation, and admiration for both these faith traditions and their followers. Should I keep silent about violence in Islam for fear I might be misunderstood?

Let’s call the attack in the Lahore park on Easter Sunday what it is: a religious massacre, an unholy slaughter of God’s children in the name of God.

I am a Jew. But today, Easter Monday, Je suis Chrétienne.

[written on Easter Monday, 2016]

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Writing, Isaac Luria’s Vessels of Light Cracked at the Creation of the World, and William Blake’s Light Shining Through the Cracks

On Writing, Isaac Luria’s Vessels of Light Cracked
at the Creation of the World, and William Blake’s
Light Shining Through the Cracks


Across the empty page laid out
before me, six ragged ovals of light appear,
each one shining, like a silver chain
linking the sun to this smooth cherry desk
to the white, white page.

They bear a message.
They are traveling somewhere,
from above to below.
Where? Where are they pointing?

No. No meaning here.
Just a trick of light—
nothing but sunlight forced through
chinks in a closed blind.

But a true trick, the kind
a dervish might play to
wake you up.
But how to hear the trick?

Light shines out the six openings, as if
burning through the paper, the paper
no longer able to keep it hidden,
the fire that creates the world—
anew, anew.

Six stepping stones across
a river of forgetting.
Jump to the first. Listen. Look.
Let the light remember you to life.
Jump to the next and see again for the first time
all you had forgotten since your last
leap toward living.
Jump again.
When you slip, haul yourself up from the turgid waters,
stand full height, expand your heart, and stretch your wings
to dry like the anhinga, that prehistoric bird.
Then leap to the next.

There are only six, not enough
to make it to the other side.

You may be stranded in the rushing waters
of forgetting and forgetting.

You may die in your sleep.

You must begin the crossing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Only last week I opened
the closet of sorrows
and you were there
hanging in your usual place.

I yanked you from your wooden hanger
bagged you, cinched you inside
thick black plastic and
set you by the door
one more bundle ready to be
dropped in the Good Will bin—
still useful to someone, perhaps.

Not my color, not my style anymore.
Too baggy now across the chest.
Too tight across the belly.
And who wears wool these days?
The day of the hairshirt is over.
It’s a new age, soft, smooth, convenient,
all comfort all the time.

Only last week.
Yet here you are
standing guard by my door
watching over all my comings
and goings, lying in wait
calling, calling, calling me
to open the shiny sack of my binding
bury my face in yours and breathe
in the scent of home
worlds of shelter, worlds of promise
slip inside the darkening until
I am wrapped in you, the word
I dare not utter, the word that creates,
the word that destroys, the word that gives,
the word that takes away,
blessed be the name of—
breathing out—
[God].

Next time I’ll rip you into rags
scrub the floor with you
let the dirt-sodden wads dry outside
in the sun, rot through the long winter
then incinerate the shreds
and wait
until the sky has erased the smoke,
until the wind has dispersed the ashes
to the ends of the earth,
and you are nullified,
ownerless as the dust of the earth.
Then I’ll go inside,
launder my clothes
wash and perfume my hair
scrub off seven layers of skin
dead dead
until the smell of you
no longer lingers,
beckoning me to lay
hold of you yet again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I couldn’t meet with the resident lama at Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, who was very close to the Dalai Lama, I was told. While waiting, I reread David-Neel’s description of the chöd ritual with the thighbone trumpet. I was about to let her go, send her home. What was it I still needed to learn from her?

Like her, I had been in exile all those years—from myself. Living a life for others. Living another’s life. Hidden among foreign objects, belonging to a person who was fascinated by me but did not know what I was, or how to use me for good. Like her, I had to return home—to myself. And what did that mean, I wondered?

I read again and again David-Neel’s description of the end of the ritual, when the celebrant says to the demon, how once the dismembered and bloody celebrant is being devoured by the destructive forces, feeding them with his or her being, sacrificing or offering herself for the good of their existence, she must travel farther. How in the final act she must renounce her sacrifice itself, realize it is an illusion created by her pride, and that she has nothing to renounce, that “he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing.” The heap of bones she has been reduced to is but a symbol of the destruction of her phantom “I.” This “relinquishment” of the elation the celebrant experiences at “my sacrifice” closes the ritual, with the sacrifice completed, the celebrant having offered up the whole self, the spirit as well as the body.

And then I knew: I had to give up my self, my spirit as well as my body. I had to let go of all that I had created and clung to in the last 21 years—a family of my own that I had created that was loving not violent, joyful not destructive. And I had to let go of the sacrifices I had made to create and nurture such a sheltering family. Had I expected a reward for my investment of time and effort and care? A cohesive family unity that would endure until I died? Freedom from anxiety and care? Had I expected gratitude? Acknowledgment that would feed my pride? All that was nothing. I was nothing. I had nothing to give, nothing to lose but my little self that clung to demons and idols, outside and in. I was nothing. I was emptiness. There was my freedom. Everything is given. Everything is found.


At the monastery I was ushered into the lama immediately. I sat down across from him in his study, the bone on my lap. I told him where I had bought it, how long I had had it, and that I wanted to return it. Three minutes. No more. Yet in that brief telling I was aware of the fullness of pride. Look at this noble gesture I am making, what I am giving up, sacrificing for the good of you community.

The lama listened, smiling and nodding. He knew what I was up to. And he knew I would see it soon enough. I don’t recall him saying anything. Suddenly, we both stood up and I handed him the thighbone trumpet. He took it from me, smiled and nodded again, and I left. As I approached the door at the far end of the hall, I heard his robes swishing behind me. And the sound of the trumpet rang out. Full. Clear. Joyous. And in the silence that followed I heard the lama laugh.

That laugh woke me up more than the blast of the trumpet. His lightness stirred my heart, rang in my bones. His delight, like that of a child, tickled me. He was not warning evil spirits away. He was not calling demons to him. He was rejoicing in a friend returning home, ready for whatever work she was called to do.

And then I was out in the sunshine, the lama’s mirth a fragrance around me, my little self cracked by laughter, my ego slain yet again, heading home.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I never blew the trumpet again. But before we parted, I heard it blown one more time.

After the morning I called the demons and they came to me, a mirror to my constricted heart, the virgin’s thighbone stayed safely in the Judaica cupboard among its ritual friends. I gave it no more thought. It had ceased to be a threat to me. With its help, I had found the demons and conquered them. I no longer had need of a trumpet to call them to me. And for its part, that smooth burnished bone no longer disturbed me as I passed by the glass-doored hall cupboard where it lived. The holes at the top of the joint, those darkened cavities that used to stare at me like twin eternal eyes—Warning me? Questioning me? Goading me? Judging me?—no longer followed me as I passed by, traveling endlessly from bedroom to kitchen, kitchen to bedroom.

In late March of 2008, my husband of 21 years left. By April of the next year we were divorced. In that vertiginous year in which I wrestled and sweated out the meaning of family and belonging, love and exile, ego and being, possessions and gifts, body and spirit, good and evil, one thing was clear to me immediately: I had to return the thighbone trumpet to its home. I didn’t fully understand why.

As part of the separation of property, I sifted through all the ritual objects we had used in our family Shabbats and holidays and simchas, portioning them out, these to me, those to him. I packed up all the ritual objects my husband had brought to our Jewish family, a Kiddush cup from his grandparents, his grandfather’s tallit, an ancient and very beautiful siddur, a lace head covering his grandmother had worn when lighting the Shabbat candles. I deeply loved these objects, had cared for them, and probably would care for them more tenderly than he would. Whenever I used one of those inherited objects to pray or bless, I felt the presence and the prayers of those who had used them so long ago, and I did not want to lose my relationship, which felt so personal, with them, those souls, those spirit-bodies who had come before me and laid their hands on these same objects I laid my hands on, our skins touching through time, in that eternal space of prayer and blessing, the love that knows no bounds, the peace that passes all understanding. But those ritual objects belonged to him and his family and they needed to return to their home, so I gave them back, though with an ache in my heart that lasts until this day. Where are they? Jumbled with bird books and college mementoes in a crate or a box in some stranger's basement on the mainland, my husband having moved to Hawai'i and left them behind? Molding in the tropical air? Are they lonely? Are they suffering from lack of use? I miss them.

In sorting through our ritual cupboard I came at last to the bone. The bone I had bought on our honeymoon trek. Was my sudden desire to return it to its home an act of cowardice or revenge? Did I want to destroy all reminders of our honeymoon, our marriage? Put that trumpet far away from me so I would not be reminded of the loss of my dream of a family every time I passed it? Adam’s words in the Garden of Eden, when he sees Chava for the first time, echoed in my head: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23) We two, Man and Woman, once joined together, had now been rent asunder. My bones amputated from his. His flesh torn from mine. The wounds still raw. Anesthesia powerless again them. Was that why the young woman’s bone had to go?

No. The bone had never been part of “us”; it had always been for me and me alone. So why then did I want to send it away?

I realized I wasn’t sending it away; I was sending it home. That young woman’s bone had lived in exile all these years: first from its land, Tibet, when the Tibetan Buddhists fled their Chinese oppressors to live in exile in Nepal, India, and elsewhere; and then from its community, the refugee community in Nepal that I had bought it from. None of her people to know her, look on her with love and gratitude. None of her people to pick her up, caress her, speak to her in her mother tongue, use her for the purpose for which she had been born and made. She needed to be used for the purpose for which she had been called into being. Without that, she was not a reminder of death, but dead. When I realized that, I could hardly bear that she should live another day in exile.

I called the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, explained that I had a very old thighbone trumpet I wanted to give to the monastery. The man on the phone set up an appointment for me with the lama.
The following week I went to meet the lama. Yet another shock.

(to be continued next week)