The Curse of the Mummy in the Lotus

Helen Grosvenor: “Save me from that mummy! It’s dead!”
– Universal Pictures’ The Mummy (1932)

mummy1b2Shades of Karloff! The mummified remains of a man, estimated to be at least 200 years old, have been found in Mongolia. Since the man appears to be sitting in the lotus position, it has been suggested that he was a Buddhist monk and that he was meditating. It has not been revealed how the mummified remains was discovered, but evidently it was covered in cattle skin and found at an undisclosed location in the Songinokhairkhan province of Mongolia. It has since been taken to the Ulaanbataar National Center of Forensic Expertise for further study.

It’s also been suggested that the man was a teacher of the famous Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov whose body is well preserved, and also seated in the lotus position, since his death in 1927.

Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.
Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.

Itigilov was a lama in the Buryat sect (the Mongolian branch of the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition), who in 1911 became the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama, the head of Russian Buddhism at that time. Buddhism did not fare too well in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and in 1926 at the height of persecution Lama Itigilov advised his fellow Buddhist monks to leave Russia because “the red teaching was coming to land.” A year later, at age 75, he announced that he was about to die and requested lamas to begin meditation ceremonies and funeral rites. However, since he was still alive the other lamas were reluctant to perform these rites. Itigilov was forced to meditate alone until the others eventually joined him, and soon thereafter he passed away.

Itigilov left instructions that he should be buried just the way he was when he died, sitting in the lotus position. His body was placed into a pine box per his wishes and interred at a bum-khan (graveyard for lamas). Itigilov also requested that his body should be exhumed by other lamas within several years.

Itigelov_preservedItigilov’s body was examined in 1955 and in 1973, but still under the iron heel of the Soviets, the lamas kept their findings to themselves. In 2002 the body was exhumed in the presence of the leaders of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia. A picture being worth a thousand words, the photo on the left tells you how they found Lama Itigilov.

Now, just how and why the people involved in this most recent discovery make a link between it and Itigilov is not explained in any of the reports I saw. They are also connecting this with Sokushinbutsu, “a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification.” I must confess, I’ve not heard of this until now. I am very familiar with sokushin jobutsu or “Buddhahood in this very lifetime” (read my post about that concept here). From what I have read, this self-mummification practice was limited to Japan, so it seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Say, what about the curse? you ask. The curse of the mummy in the lotus? Sorry, folks, no curse, just a good mummy movie kind of post title.

Finally, I ask you to always remember what Imhotep (Boris Karloff) said to Helen Grosvenor, dressed as his beloved Princess Anck-es-en-Amon:

1932mummy2It was not only this body I loved, it was thy soul. I destroy this lifeless thing! Thou shall take its place but for a few moments and then… RISE again, even as I have risen!”

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Deathfugue

Most of you will read this tomorrow, but as I write, it is still January 27, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In actuality, Auschwitz was a network of camps – concentration camps built to hold and torture political prisoners, trade unionists, others whom the Nazi’s had no use for, mostly Jews, and extermination camps designed and constructed to kill, Jews mostly.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As we now live in an time where we are witness to crimes shockingly reminiscent of those atrocities from the World War II era, it is important that we do not forget Auschwitz, that we remember the Holocaust.

One of the most powerful, electric literary works created by a Holocaust survivor to help us remember is a poem by Paul Celan titled Deathfugue. I posted this poem once before and included some background information with that entry, so I will not repeat myself. Instead, today, the lines are accompanied by a poster I made based on the poem.

black_milk

Paul Celan’s Todesfuge or “Deathfugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Translated from German by Michael Hamburger

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The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969

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The World as Satire?

You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.
– Art Buchwald

I’ve been laid up all week with a sore knee – actually, sore is not the word for it, more like pain to the nth degree – and as a result, haven’t done much other than read and watch TV. And think.

I keep mulling over the questions about free speech and censorship raised by the tragic Charlie Hebdo incident. And this will probably be my last word on that subject for a while. I think the bottom line on this issue was stated succinctly the other day by none other than Riss, head of publication for Charlie Hebdo, who was injured during the attack. He said, “If you don’t like the magazine, you don’t read it, you push it aside.”

This echoes the approach laid out by the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.” So, if you do not wish to be offended, do not look at things you find offensive. Don’t like that a certain film has nudity, don’t watch the film. Don’t like what someone is saying on TV, change the channel.

At the same time, there can be a fine line between what is satirical and what is offensive. The legendary comedian Lenny Bruce once used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” I’m not sure Lenny was right about that, but nonetheless, he was hailed as a genius.

Decades later when Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) repeatedly used the N-word at the Laugh Factory, it didn’t work and he was labeled a racist. What was the difference? Simply that Richard, whom I don’t believe intended to be racist, didn’t have a point. He was merely trying to shock, entertain. And he ended up being offensive.

Still, making fun of things just for the fun of it is, well, fun. I guess it comes down to how it’s done . . .

I’ve also been thinking about how Islam is not the only religion that is sensitive about images of its founder. During Buddhism’s first six centuries, no images of Buddha were ever made. Instead, he was represented by a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf. We have long passed that era but today in certain Asian countries where the more fundamentalist branch of Theravada is the predominate form of Buddhism, folks can be touchy about how Buddha is portrayed.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.
The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals are facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. In August, a Canadian tourist was expelled for having a Buddha tattoo and a Spanish tourist was expelled in September for his Buddhist tattoo.

Last April, A British tourist was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo after authorities spotted a traditional, non-satiric tattoo of Buddha sitting atop a Lotus flower on her right arm.

It’s a fine line, all right. You can err by being offensive, you can also be overly sensitive. I don’t find the Buddha with headphones image offensive, but then I’ve been guilty of creating some less than traditional images of Buddha myself . . . just for the fun of it . . .

From a 2010 post, here is a scene from the Dairyvatara or “Sutra of the Decent to Dairy Queen”:

buddha-dq

In 2011, I wondered what the stereotypical American Buddhist looked like . . .

Not content to insult the original Buddha, I’ve also lampooned the “Second Buddha”:

badass-nagarjuna2

I’ve even had to audacity to depict The Marx Brothers as iconic Bodhisattvas – here’s their statues in Guru Hall at Whyaduck Temple:

Guru-Hall

Well, whaddya expect from a guy who doesn’t even take himself very seriously?

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.
– Stephen Colbert

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Waking Up

It has been a while since I have passed on any updates about Thich Nhat Hanh’s condition. The latest from Plum Village, is a message dated January 3rd: “In the last three weeks Thay has gradually emerged into wakefulness, and has his eyes open for much of the day, to the point where the doctors can now say that he is no longer in a coma.”

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and you may be aware of the connection between Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. It was partly through his interaction with the Vietnamese Zen teacher, that Dr. King was persuaded to take a public stand in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

MLK-TNHIn June 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh sent King a letter to explain why monks in Vietnam were self-immolating in opposition to the war and to urge King to add his voice in protest against the widening conflict. He wrote in part,

I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent . . . You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam.”

Dr. King and Thay first met during the latter’s visit to the United States in 1966. On January 25, 1967 King wrote a letter to The Nobel Institute in Norway, nominating “this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam” for the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than four months later, on April 4th, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated – Dr. King, speaking at Riverside Church in New York City to the group Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, delivered one of his greatest speeches titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, his first public denouncement of U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

That was a crucial moment in Dr. King’s crusade, and some historians believe it may have the action that sealed his fate.  Without a doubt, opossing the war cost him many political allies, including President Johnson.

At the end of his letter to King, Thich Nhat Hanh says that he was writing as a person in communion with the great humanists of the world “whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.”

That enemy is ignorance (advidya), which Buddhism describes as a state of mis-knowing, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world. Shantideva in the Bodicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) tells us that the power and the degree of damage this internal enemy can exact upon us is what makes it our foremost adversary.

Awakening is the counter-agent that removes the infection of ignorance from our minds. Even someone as socially conscious as Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “wake up” to the horror of the Vietnam War. Likewise we must continually awaken, and continually remember, as the great humanists of the world have, what was phrased so well by Dr. King himself, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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