[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.]
When our trek to Lantang ended, and we were packing to return to our new life together in Minnesota, I packed the bone in my small carry-on backpack instead of our huge duffel—not so it wouldn’t get stolen, as indeed our big body bag was, but because I needed to be near that bone. I also carried with me Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery of Tibet so that during the long flight I could learn more about my new companion.
Somewhere in the middle—the middle of the book, neither beginning nor end; the middle of the flight, neither East nor West; the middle of space, neither on the ground nor in outer space; the middle distance, neither inside Buddhism nor a stranger to deep religious practice—somewhere with no clean coordinates on any map of being, I came upon David-Neel’s description of the “mystery” of chöd (cutting off), “the dreadful mystic banquet,” the ritual in which the thighbone trumpet (kanglang,) is used.Eager to learn the choreography of the ritual of driving away evil, I devoured her opening description of how the celebrant goes alone to a cemetery “or any wild site whose physical aspect awakens feelings of terror.” I turned the page, impatient for the next step in the drama. Suddenly, like a cloudless summer sky that becomes a green-black whirling funnel of destruction, my hope for blowing evil far from me, to the four corners of the earth, turned to terror.
The celebrant goes to such wild places, David-Neel explains, because it is there that violent or evil forces may be stirred up, either by deeds that took place there or by the concentration of many people’s minds on imaginary events at that spot, and thus it is there that he or she will most likely encounter demons. Demons. Not spirits of people who have been cruel or done evil deeds, and who may feel repentance for their deeds or a new-born need for enlightenment. But the spirits of those who habitually harbored hatred and ill will and delighted in cruelty. Demons. Demons the celebrant is there not to frighten away with a thundering blast of the trumpet, but to summon so he or she may invite them to devour his or her body and spirit.
The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, electrified, and my scalp was tingling, but I read on:
The celebrant blows his bone trumpet, calling the hungry demons to the feast he intends to lay before them. He imagines that a feminine deity, which esoterically personifies his own will, springs from the top of his head and stands before him, sword in hand.I closed the book, overcome by this act of selflessness and compassion for all beings. To give oneself to relieve the suffering of others was a noble and thrilling idea, even if at first disappointing, since I had been searching for protection against evil.
With one stroke she cuts off the head of the [celebrant]. Then, while troops of ghouls crowd round for the feast, the goddess severs his limbs, skins him and rips open his belly. The bowels fall out, the blood flows like a river, and the hideous guests bit here and there, masticate noisily, while the celebrant excites and urges them with the liturgic words of unreserved surrender. (112-113)
“For ages…I have borrowed from countless living beings…all kinds of services to sustain my body, to keep it joyful in comfort and to defend it against death. Today, I pay my debt, offering for destruction this body which I have held so dear.
I give my flesh to the hungry, my blood to the thirsty, my skin to clothe those who are naked, my bones as fuel to those who suffer from cold. I give my happiness to the unhappy ones. I give my breath to bring back the dying to life.
Shame on me if I shrink from giving my self!” (112-113)
When my body had caught up with the shock of the reversal, I opened the book again. The drama was far from over. 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. She must imagine that she is but a heap of charred bones left behind by the demons she was given herself to. Then, 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.
As I read David-Neel’s description of this last act, the slaying of one’s ego, my mouth went dry, my skin shivered with cold, and my bones trembled. This bone is my own version of fatal attraction, I thought. Irresistibly drawn to it at first, I now wanted to run from it. I had seen in it a powerful ally that would help me protect myself against the evil outside myself. But it had quickly shown its true and terrifying face, a shocking exposure of the need to rid myself of the evil that I carried within myself.
I closed the book, buried it in my backpack, and tried to escape into sleep for the rest of the flight.
When we got home, I hid the traitor behind the other ritual objects in our Judaica cabinet, blocking it with our silver Shabbat candlesticks, brass menorah, kiddush cup, havdalah set, and shofar. I wanted to make sure no smart aleck picked it up accidentally, put it to their lips, and blew, unwittingly unleashing demons into the sanctuary that was our home, to wreak God-knows-what destruction on the unsuspecting and unprepared. I also hoped that the power of those objects of joy and life would neutralize the fearsome power of that bone and the forces it was joined to. That in exile, a stranger in a strange land, that virgin’s thighbone would become inert.
That traitor of a bone stayed safely hidden in our Judaica cabinet through the birth of our son, the birth of our daughter, our move to rural South Carolina, and our move to Charleston, South Carolina. From time to time an observant visitor would ask about it, but I would brush them off, saying, “That’s a Tibetan thighbone trumpet. Not sure what it’s used for, but it shouldn’t be handled. It’s very fragile.”
Until one morning, ten years after I had first seen that bone, I walked to the cabinet, took it out, and prepared to blow it.
(to be continued next week)