Multiplicity

There Is Just So Much to Remember

Last Monday, I was privileged to see a demonstration of Indian temple dancing at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The young woman who runs Soorya Performing Arts in Woodland Hills casually mentioned in her introduction that there are a million gods in the Hindu religion. It is possible she wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Huffington Post, there are upwards of 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. Another source says there are 330 million. That is approximately one god for each person currently living in the United States. Your own personal deity, so to speak.

Doesn’t that make things complicated? Now India is a very Hindu country—so Hindu in fact that Buddhism, which was born there, is more or less eradicated from the entire subcontinent. The ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is virulently Hindu. And yet there are 22 different languages spoken in different parts of India. With all that wild multiplicity, I have a difficult time focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is relatively unimportant. If you pray to one particular god, say Vishnu, does not another god, say Prajapati, get envious and turn your earnest pleas into a curse on your family for 27 generations?

It just so happens that I am going through a period of my life which is heavily influenced by Indian vegetarian cuisine. For the last three weeks, Martine has been going through some intestinal ailment which does not allow her to eat my cooking, and what she can eat barely counts as cooking at all in my book. So I have been making some authentic spicy vegetarian curries and bhajis. Also, I am reading Eric Newby’s travel classic Slowly Down the Ganges.

Now if I become interested in the Hindu religion as well, do I risk fragmenting myself into 330 million pieces?

 

Maximón

Votive Figure of Maximón in Santiago Atitlán

I laugh when ignorant people wonder what happened to the Maya. They are still around, and still occupying the parts of Mexico (Chiapas and Yucatán), Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras that constituted the original Maya homeland at its height. There are millions of Maya around. They speak some thirty different major dialects of the Mayan language, most of which are not understandable to Maya speaking other dialects.

When Cortés arrived in 1519, he made short work of the Aztecs. Moctezuma and his people were conquered within a few years. (Their language, Nahuatl, still exists.) It took a considerable while longer for all the Maya polities to fall. The last one, Tayasal, located on the Lago de Petén near present-day Flores in Guatemala, fell in 1695.

But the Maya are still Maya. They managed to survive with their culture not quite intact, yet robust enough to survive under new circumstances, namely Spanish conquest. There are still isolated Maya villages where non-Maya are not welcome. In others, there are strange new Maya gods, such as Maximón (mah-shi-MOAN) whose image appears above.  When I visit Santiago Atitlán, I plan to visit him and offer a gift, typically a bottle of aguardiente, cigars, or a pack of cigarettes.

This Maximón is a sort of evil god, midway between the underworld (Xibalba) and the heavens. The Tzutujil-speaking Maya, who inhabit the area, pay homage to him, particularly during Holy Week. According to Peter Canby in his The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya:

In Santiago Atitlán, Maximón is the god of destructive nature, of floods, earthquakes, and storms. A traveler and walker, he is associated with snakebites, is the inflicter of madness, and is worshiped at the mouths of caves. [Anthropologist] Michael Coe associates Maam (Maximón) with the Yucatec god Pauhatun, also known as God N, one of the most powerful underworld gods. In fact, Pauhatun is the quadripartite god taking part in a hallucinogenic enema-ritual depicted on the funerary vase in Michael Coe’s Lords of the Underworld…. It was strange, therefore, to see atitecos [Maya residents of Santiago Atitlán] treating Maximón with such tender reverence, but I knew that this merely reflected the different concepts of evil held by ourselves and the Maya.

Figure of Pauhatun from the Ruins at Copán

To us, evil is something absolute, something to be resisted at all costs. To the Maya, evil is the principle of death and decay in nature and therefore an integral part of life. Gods like Maximón are terrifying, but they’re also part of the earth’s fertility. [Archeologist J Eric S] Thompson notes that “there is a widespread Maya belief that darkness and the underworld are evil, but as [the underworld] reaches up to immediately below the surface of the earth, it also produces crops.”

Among the attributes worshiped in Maximón are those of Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado, cruelest of conquistadores. I cannot help but think that there is something in the Maya conception of evil that has led them to survive as a culture—if not 100% intact, then at least substantially intact. Compare that with America’s vision of itself as “a city on a hill” acting as a beacon for all peoples, while we slaughter our own children with military automatic weapons.

 

Cherry-Picking the Bible

What I Heard on the #704 Bus

Today, I went by bus to the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax. On the return trip, I took he MTA #704 from Fairfax and Santa Monica back to my apartment in West L.A. I was treated to an interesting conversation between two Christian women sitting in front of me. They had each read certain fashionable sections of the Bible—but not the entire Bible—and were talking at cross-purposes during the entire 40-minute ride. They used a lot of five dollar words like “tribulation” and freely speculated what was in the Mind of the Creator. They had slightly conflicting views of hell, and went into great detail on how worms devoured buried corpses.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I never regarded the Bible as the only authoritative source of God’s word. To do that would be to admit that God perhaps existed two thousand years ago, but has not had anything to say to man during the intervening two millenia. (Catholics believe that God also has spoken  through the Saints.)

The two women were passing a Bible back and forth so that they could score points off each other. I noticed that theirs was a Protestant Bible, minus the books and selected chapters that Martin Luther had pulled—although they were set in concrete by the 5th century A.D.— well before the Christian/Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant splits. These books included:

  • 1 and 2 Esdras
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Wisdom (one of my favorite books)
  • Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees

Was Martin Luther inspired by God to cut these books? Or did they go against his own religious beliefs?

That’s a big problem with the Bible. Which version does one thump? I prefer the Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, because it doesn’t reflect any one person’s views. Also, if I were a part of that argument between the two women, I would have made the following points:

  • The Bible is not the only authoritative Word of God: There is also The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, and many great works by the Saints
  • There are many great passages in the Bible (especially Psalms and Ecclesiastes), but there’s also a lot of dreck that virtually no one believes, such as are found in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and a few other places
  • I believe in God (or The Gods), but I do not presume to look into the Mind of God

Of course, if I had opened my mouth, I am sure I would have been damned to Heck by both women, who were not about to listen to a vile heretic like me.

 

Mindfulness Is the Key

Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Born 1926)

When I was cut back to two days of work in May 2016, I felt as if my world were shattered. Just by happenstance, within a week or two, I found myself at the Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Hope downtown on a Thursday. Every Thursday at 12:30 pm, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) gives a guided 30-minute meditation in Conference Room A. I have come to depend on these Thursday sessions, plus my own efforts at meditation whenever and wherever, to give me a feeling of living in the present moment and enjoying glimpses of happiness.

I have also read several books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, most recently No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering and also The Art of Living. According to Thich mindfulness is the key to enjoying such happiness that we can experience in this life.

In answer to a question about the danger of dualism of the mind and body, Thich replied:

Maybe intellectually people know that they should live in the present moment, but the habit energy that has been there for a long time is always pushing them to rush around, so they have lost their capacity to be in the present moment in order to lead their life deeply. That is why the practice is important, and talking is not enough. You have to practice enough to really stop your running around so that you can establish yourself in the present moment. That is the very beginning of the practice: stopping. Stopping, looking deeply, and finding happiness and liberation—that is the Buddhist path.

On the existence of suffering, he writes:

Suffering and happiness inter-are. We can recognize happiness only against the background of suffering. It’s like when you recognize the white against the background of the black. Only if you have been hungry can you experience the joy of having something to eat. If you experience the suffering of war, you can recognize the value of peace. Otherwise, you don’t appreciate peace, and you want to make war. So your experience of the suffering of war serves as the background for your happiness about peace. Therefore, to have some suffering is very important. You learn from suffering, and against that background, you can recognize happiness.

There is a deep tendency in us to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. It is rooted in the store consciousness, called manas in Sanskrit. Manas is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain and suffering. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure-seeking because there is ignorance in manas. It is like a fish who is about to bite the bait and does not know that inside of the bait there is a hook. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure and does not know that suffering has its own goodness. It is good to experience some suffering, because when you suffer you develop compassion and understanding.

If you are interested in the simple practices that have meant so much to me in my recent life, I suggest you check out the website of MARC at http://marc.ucla.edu/. And see if you can find any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.

 

 

Dancing to Welcome the Spirits of the Dead

West L.A. Obon Festival Eleven Years Ago

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for more than forty years now, and today was no exception. I chowed down on the Men’s Club udon soup—two bowls, no less!—and sat with Martine to watch the cheerful dances in which the spirits of the dead were welcomed. As usual, all he participants seemed to be having a great time. One nice thing about this festival is that all are welcome, regardless of race, color, or creed.

This time, I neglected to bring my camera, so I am sharing with you a picture I took in 2006. The same tall Japanese Obon dancer was there today, looking not much older than he did eleven years ago.

Poster for the Festival We Attended


Although I have not done it in over fifty years, some day I will attend one of the West L.A. Buddhist Temple’s services. I should, inasmuch as the Temple has played such a benign part in my life over so long a period of time.

The Past Recaptured?

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage with Rye Bread and Sour Cream

I do not have anything to say about Proust in this posting. Maybe I should have called it “You Can’t Go Home Again” or some such title. My earliest memories are about being raised in a Hungarian household in Cleveland by loving parents. I could not, would not ever repudiate that part of me; and I keep going in search of experiences that, like Proust’s madeleine bring back the happy memories of my childhood.

There used to be some good Hungarian restaurants in Los Angeles; but, as big a city as this is, there do not appear to be any at this time. So Martine and I show up at the local Hungarian Reformed Churches for their festivals. I go to recover my memories, and Martine goes because (although she is French) she loves Hungarian food more than any other.

Despite a rare May rain shower, we went to the Majális festival at the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda. We have been going here for almost ten years. Even within that short time, we have seen the parishioner base age as the old Hungarians die off and the younger ones spread out to the four winds. Still, the food is excellent. Their stuffed cabbage is superb, and their baked goods are world class.

The Grace Hungarian Reformed Church as It Looked Several Years Ago

Their pastor is still Zsolt Jakabffy, who keeps soldiering away at maintaining a parish amid the rapidly changing demographics of the San Fernando Valley.

Wait a minute! What’s a Catholic boy like me doing hanging out at a Protestant church? It all goes back to when my Catholic father and my Protestant Reformatus mother made before their children were born. Any boys would be brought up as Catholic; any girls, as Protestant. Just my mother’s luck that she gave birth to two sons.

So, yes, I have no compunction looking for God wherever He is invoked.

 

Serendipity: The Broken Prism

The Blessed Virgin Mary

You could be a million miles away when, quite suddenly, you can be confronted with what you believe—and what you don’t believe. Today, I was sitting in the Santa Monica Library reading Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment: More Travel, Less Bliss, ostensibly a book of adventure travel essays, when the following paragraph hit me smack between the eyes:

My own background is Catholic. I suppose my current status in that Church can best be described as long-lapsed. Even so, no one who has suffered a Catholic education is ever entirely free of the belief, or at least the discipline. Quaint notions, punitive and medieval, color my perception of the physical world. I tend to see the wilderness through the broken prism of my faith.

That holds true for me as much as it does for Tim Cahill, one of the founders of Outside magazine. The only change I would make is that I never “suffered” a Catholic education: I merely “experienced” it, and not unwillingly. My grade school, Saint Henry in Cleveland, Ohio, was staffed by Dominican sisters; and my high school, St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, was taught by Marist priests. At Dartmouth College, I was an active participant in Catholic services at the Newman Club under Monsignor William Nolan.

When asked whether I believe in God, my answer is always, Yes. I quickly add that I have no idea what God is like or what He/She/It wants. I only know that the Godhead manifests itself in some very curious ways to the peoples of this planet. I cannot pretend to be an atheist with any degree of certitude, nor do I wish to. There is enough left of the shards of my faith to see me through the day.

What will I believe a year from now? I don’t know. It’s all subject to change.