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.