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.