Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

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Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

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A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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Zen and everyday life

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[Image from North Dakota State University]
I had plans for another post today, in light of a fellow blogger nominating me for a Liebster Award. But a night at a Franciscan retreat center has prompted me to write something a little different.

Since I first learned about Buddhism in high school, I’ve been interested in it. I still remember filling out answers to the Four Noble Truths on quizzes in the front of my ninth grade class, alongside sanskrit terms.

Since then, I’ve come a long way.

An independent study in Buddhist philosophy, numerous books, a few meditation retreats, and a daily meditation practice that lasted a few years have all increased my awareness in Buddhism, especially Zen.

But two winters ago, my interest culminated in a three day retreat at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. I still recall the final day of the retreat. After the exhausting stints of 5 a.m. zazen meditation and work projects–where I silently cracked over a hundred eggs–we concluded with a koan and a dharma talk by the sensei. The koan was about the diamond sutra, a central text in Mahayana Buddhism, called “diamond” because a true understanding allows one to cut through illusion and ignorance like a diamond.

The sensei brought up the ending of the sutra itself:

“So I say to you – 
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; 
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, 
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

Building on the Buddhist notion of impermanence–that life contains unceasing flux and change–the sensei stressed our need to “leave no footprints” as we moved through life, negotiating the tricky balance of “equanimity,” a peaceful abiding between aversion and desire that does not fall into indifference. Life is indeed brief. It is full of change and interdependence. Like a dream, things come and go.

Sitting in zazen position, legs folded and “heart open,” I felt a change. Buddhism traditionally has different levels of understanding, ranging from the merely intellectual to the silent but sure understanding of an Enlightened one. Somewhere between lies a heart understanding, where one truly “feels” a new insight that cannot fit into words.

In the midst of the dharma talk, I felt that insight.

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Alan Watts on a Sunday

I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.

Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.

A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.

I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.

Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

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Update

Hey all,

I’ve been on the road for most of this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I apologize. In the meantime, here’s a video. It’s a two-part video on Kierkegaard from a BBC documentary called Sea of Faith that covers a number of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and how they approached faith in the modern era.

Enjoy:

Augustine and Evil

My dad closed the door and flicked off the lights, pitching the room into a clean black. Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold“Goodnight,” he said as he walked way. He footsteps receded as he walked downstairs to rejoin my mom. My brother sat up beside the bed.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

We piled my stuffed animals and realigned my pillows, burying the human-like decoy in a thick comforter. From the doorway, it looked like a body curled up in deep sleep. Perfect.

My brother and I snuck downstairs, our soft footfalls swallowed by explosions and gunshots from an action movie. We opened the basement door and slipped downstairs to my brother’s room, where we watched kung-fu and R-rated movies, eating chips and dip, until dawn.

I could have asked my parents to sleep downstairs. They would have probably said yes—it was a Friday and I was almost nine. But the thrill of subterfuge tinged my flight. Breaking rules was liberating, saying “no” was exciting. Doing the “wrong” thing was a thrill.

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells a similar story. One night, he and his friends sneak into a garden and steal pears. They don’t eat the fruit but still enjoy the theft for its sinful pleasure. As he writes, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say, I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me” (Augustine and F.J. Sheed, trans., 44).

One of the many picture's of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)
One of the many pictures of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)

In my forbidden flight and Augustine’s theft, we broke rules. Using Augustine’s theological language, we “sinned,” turning away from God toward ourselves. In Augustine’s case, he picked a forbidden fruit. In my case, I disobeyed my parents. This “turning away” forms an essential crux in Augustine’s argument defending God against the charge of evil. But to understand his argument one must first understand his notion of being and non-being–gleaned from the Greek tradition.

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Solitude and Loneliness

A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella. Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog

“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”

I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”

We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.

And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.

But what’s the difference?

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Starlight and renewal

Sometimes, when I’m tired or lost I look at old writing. It reminds me where I camestars1.jpg from, what has always mattered, and where I ought to go. Today, as I struggled to write a blog post, I sorted through old files and notebooks.

I found this, a reflection from fall of my junior year. It was a hard semester, as I’ve referenced before, but it many ways, it set my foundation. In the midst of that darkness, I found my passions and insecurities. I found my self.

I think this particular reflection captures a lot of that. It also hits at the seed that inspired this entire blog: the fusion of life and philosophy that makes “backyard philosophy.”

I repost it in full below, only edited for grammar. We all need reminders now and then.

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The Quest for Peace

Something I wrote before: “I am not like yesterday. Not yet tomorrow. I am today.” This line returns to me like a long slow breath, stretching syllables until they share the weight of my body and soul.   And then I remember what I lack, what I fear, what I need for “today” to be here with me as my present self. Because tomorrow I will say, “I am not like yesterday.” Thoughts are my enemies, but I learned that peace is something that never ceases to exist. It’s there. But peace is humble; it doesn’t seek our attention. In lieu, we must be the ones to pursue it—or perhaps, realize peace.

The quest for peace in our days is a labyrinth with its dark tunnels and hidden passageways. I am in this maze just as much as you are.  But I have discovered that the peace is the maze itself. Or maybe not? Well, I am still living and learning. Ten or twenty years from now I might assemble a different perspective on peace. But, as of now, I am taking a stop in my travels, so I can let my life stir what it has collected over the years.

Within the stream of my thoughts and endless needs and desires, I can feel the weight of the world dropping on my hands like tiny seeds waiting to be planted in my head. And within my fears and doubts, I can distinguish which seeds I had actually considered to plant ten years ago.

I am not drawn to gardening at all, but if I had the influence, I would. As of now, I am tending the garden in my head and, especially, my heart.

Peace grows where we unite ourselves to the soul of peace.

I don’t want to say the ground of peace or the core of peace, but rather the soul—the soul is its life, its true breath. The soul is an intimate substance. It is where the encounter of our essence and intangibility gaze at each other as lovers do before they depart. The only difference is that the makeup of our soul never leaves—it is us. And we make that precious encounter with peace when we contemplate on its authenticity as opposed to the benefits or outcomes of peace itself. In a similar way, we make that distinctive encounter with ourselves when we contemplate on the intimate reality that we possess in our souls. Not in yesterday’s reasons and excuses or tomorrow’s goals and desires, but today’s moment. Peace is for today; it’s meant for today. And it’s meant for us and it longs for each of our distinctive union.

As I have mentioned before, peace is humble, so it is not ignorant or oblivious to its own beauty and power. As each fear or troubling thought marks its territory in my mind, peace remains quiet and patient because it knows I have to make the effort to enter into its sanctuary.

We must humble ourselves to encounter peace. We must admit our faults and frustrations and realize that there are things in life we do not have control over. Deep inside ourselves, we are vulnerable and powerless. Deep inside ourselves, we fail to remember our human quality which is truly vital to recognize as we face our struggles and disappointments. But, we, most importantly, overlook the active presence of our soul that is oftentimes deadened by our fleeting pursuits of unnecessary and damaging ambitions. And, yet, peace still waits for us. Underneath, above, in between our angst and fears and concerns—peace is there. It exists. It exists. It exists.