Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 1 and 2

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. Please let me know what you think.

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 1

On my honeymoon in Nepal in 1987, I bought the thigh bone of a young virgin. When my husband left unexpectedly in 2008, I gave the woman’s bone away. My time with her was over.

This is the story of what she taught me.

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 2: How We Met
When our trek to Lantang Valley ended, after sleeping in yak pastures, visiting monasteries, and being humbled by mountains for two weeks, we returned to Kathmandu. We spun the prayer wheels at Boudhanath stupa and climbed the steps to the Monkey Temple. In a nearby valley we watched men slaughter goats and pour the blood over the statue of Kali, Goddess of Destruction, then roast the flesh and picnic with their families by the banks of a river. In the heart of the city, we witnessed an audience with the Kumari, the young virgin who is a living goddess and whose feet are never allowed to touch the ground and whose every gland or nod is a revelation—until she bleeds and returns to being a mortal. And we visited a Tibetan refugee camp.

It was in the camp that I first met her. She was lying in a glass case in the visitor’s shop. I spotted it right away and moved closer to look. It was clearly a human bone. An old one. Worn smooth and burnished to a warm caramel color. My hands tingled with a desire to feel its weight in my hands, stroke it, hold it close to my heart.

“It’s a femur,” my doctor-husband said. "A thigh bone. A human one." And so it was. From the wide, lumpish ball joint where it was once joined to the hip it tapered to a straight-edged narrow bone twelve inches below.

The shopkeeper nodded. “From a young girl,” she said. “A virgin.” She saw my look of alarm and knew I hadn’t realized that Buddhists don’t perform human sacrifice, do not kill any living being. “When they find a young girl who has died, they take her thigh bone to make this trumpet.”

I looked again and saw it had been hollowed out. “It’s like a shofar,” I said to my husband, the trumpet made out of a ram’s horn that Jews blow on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year to announce that all things are being weighed in the balance, to call us to examine our lives, as a new cycle begins.

The shopkeeper reached in the display case to take out the bone, but I waved her to stop and escaped to the other end of the shop. I rubbed a wooden mallet around the edge of several singing bowls, but I couldn’t make the metals sing. I was not calm enough.

I studied the malas of skulls carved from bones, examined the human skulls that had been formed into bowls and carved with symbols, inlaid with coral and turquoise, lined with silver—all visceral reminders of impermanence, just like the young woman’s bone become trumpet. All teaching, Face death clear-eyed and you will know how to live.

I walked back to the case and stared at the bone. All along its length it was dotted with intricate carvings of Buddhist symbols, each no more than one inch wide, carved into the bone itself. A conch shell. A dharma wheel of transformation. A swastika. She took out the bone and laid it in my hands. It seemed to grow warmer against my skin. I turned it over, and as I did I caught my breath and said, “A magein David, star of David.” There, just under the ball joint, was a beautifully carved six-pointed star woven into an endless knot. Now I wanted that trumpet.

“What is this used for?” I asked the woman.

“To drive away evil spirits.”

Now I really wanted that trumpet. I desperately needed help countering forces of destruction in my life, to keep those who wished me harm away. I imagined putting my lips to the narrow end of that trumpet and blowing my breath through it, watching it expand and leave the wide end full and powerful clearing the space around me, creating a protective space in which I felt safe.
Still I hesitated. I was afraid of the power of that bone, but I didn’t realize it. Instead, I interrogated her on the ethics of buying ritual objects, especially ones from a tradition that one doesn’t belong to. “Is it okay to buy a sacred object like this?”

She nodded, a bit perplexed.

“I mean, I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a Jew. I wouldn’t want anybody to come and buy one of our ritual objects as just a souvenir or art object. And it seems wrong to make a sacred object part of a money transaction.”
“It’s good,” she said. “It helps us.”

The Tibetans had been forced into exile by the Chinese, the way the Jews had been thousands of years before by the Babylonians and not so long ago by England, Spain, Russia, Germany, and other nations. They were struggling to keep their traditions and their people alive. Who was I to even guess what was necessary in those circumstances? What was good?

And I knew better, too. For Jews, no thing is sacred, in and of itself, just as no place is sacred, in and of itself. Use is all. The One alone is holy, in and of itself. When a congregation dies and its synagogue must be sold, it is desacralized, decommissioned as a house of prayer and praise and returned to its secular state. So too with objects. How many menorahs have, by violence or assimilation or poverty, become candelabras in antique shops? The Sarajevo Haggadah, carried out of Spain during the expulsion of the Jews, was after centuries of family use sold by its family to keep them alive.

Still I hesitated. Maybe it wasn’t morally or culturally or spiritually wrong of me to buy that woman’s bone become trumpet. But if use is all, what use would it have in my life? I didn’t know. I did know it would play a life-changing role in my life. I belonged to that bone. And she belonged to me. For the time being. Flesh to spirit. Spirit to flesh. Good to evil. Evil to good. That’s what made me so afraid.

I bought it for one hundred dollars.

(to be continued next week)

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