Fending Off the Wrathful Deities

Another Eastern Holy Book I Forgot to Mention Yesterday

Memory is like that. You write about the importance of A and B in your life, and then you realize you have left out C. In addition to the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, the other work of Eastern wisdom you have totally forgotten is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In many ways, it’s he most important of the three. The Christians have their Hell, the Jews their Sheol, the Muslims their Jahannam … but for the Tantric Buddhists of Tibet, Hell was a way station on the road to rebirth.

When one died, one entered an in-between state known as the Bardo. The goal for a Tibetan was to prepare oneself to be assailed by wrathful deities. By expressing fear at this confrontation, the departed soul was delivered over for rebirth. The wrathful deities are, in a way, like the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: They were there only for Scrooge’s benefit.

According to the Buddhist Weekly, one of the worst of the wrathful deities was Palden Lhamo, illustrated above:

With a world-shaking cry the figure, now blue black, starts to its feet… The giant figure pounds forward, wild hair streaming upward, tied around with snakes. The massive body, nearly naked, girt only in a tiger-skin, wears skulls—pretty, staring skulls—as jewels. Snake-enwreathed, fang-mouthed, three eyes glaring bloodshot from an awesome face, he marches onward bellowing challenge…

The goal in Tantric Buddhism is not heaven, of which there is no sign in the religion, but annihilation. That is the only true nirvana. To be reborn is a defeat of sorts.

In many ways—even before one dies—one is always fending off wrathful deities, be they Trump or one’s boss or one’s wife. In many ways, fending off the wrathful deities is not only important after one’s death, but also during one’s life.

 

 

The Bhagavad Gita

Arjuna and Krishna with the Pandava Army at Kurukshetra

Of all the deep books of Eastern wisdom, the two that have most influenced me are the  Tao Te Ching of Laotse and the Bhagavad Gita, a selection of some 700 lines from India’s national epic, The Mahabharata. Both are relatively short, yet abruptly different from the theistic traditions of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic faiths.

I was first introduced to the Bhagavad Gita in 1975, on the bus between Chichen Itza and Mérida in Yucatán. I was sitting next to a cute Canadian girl who, as I recall, berated me for being too pompous. (She was right.) She gave me her copy of the Hindu scripture as a corrective to my sense of self-importance. Since then, I have read it several times.

Arjuna is with the god Krishna at the battlefield of Kurukshetra. As he scans the Kaurava army arrayed on the field against him, he expresses doubts about his role in fighting the battle. The Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on the subject:

Look upon pleasure and pain, victory and defeat, with an equal eye. Make ready for the combat, and thou shalt commit no sin.

Krishna continues:

He who wherever he goes is attached to no person and to no place by ties of flesh; who accepts good and evil alike, neither welcoming the one nor shrinking from the other—take him to be the one who is merged to the Infinite.

In the end, Arjuna resolves to commit himself to the battle. This is all very different from turning the other cheek, and certainly a good deal bloodier.

The quotes above are from the edition I read most recently, the translation for Shambala Pocket Classics by Shri Purohit Swami.

 

 

 

 

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos Celebrants at Cabot’s Museum in Desert Hot Springs

In the Catholic liturgy, today is All Souls’ Day, which the Mexican culture has enriched with its Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Mexican feast day is much healthier than our own Halloween: Families go to the cemeteries with a picnic lunch, which they eat by the grave of their loved ones. Years ago, I was on a bus between Mazatlán and Durango on November 2 with a number of villagers headed to celebrate. The bus was full, so I helped a young mother hold her baby from time to time as she tended to her other children.

We see death as an embarrassment, some kind of failure. Too bad, because we all die; and that death is part and parcel of our lives. We deny it at our own risk, because when we least expect it, to springs out like a jack-in-the-box and catches us all unawares. One of the strengths of Mexican culture—and I believe there are many—is that people do not try to sweep the inevitable under the rug.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, at Chichen Itza

The Aztecs and Maya used to fight wars among themselves and their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners who were sacrificed to the gods. At Chichen Itza, there was a large platform called the Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, to hold a pyramid of skulls of these sacrificial victims. There were a number of grisly rituals connected with these sacrifices, such as cutting out the heart of victims with an obsidian knife and kicking the body down the pyramid steps, skinning the victims and having the priests wear the skins. There was even some cannibalism. Eventually, with the Spanish invasion, these rituals were suppressed; but the celebration of life’s fragility became a part of the culture.

Maybe this is what Trumpf is afraid of by these “invasions” from Latin America. He’s afraid for his own head, perhaps. They can have it.

 

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.