Day One: Arriving in Beijing
When the sun stands at mid-day it begins to set; when the moon is full it begins to wane…. How much truer this is for men….
—Commentary on the 55th Hexagram of the Book of Changes
The more cold gets into the river the slower it flows. In the moonlight silver frosting on almost unmoving water. The mist that surrounds the mountains was once mountains as well, a thin but discernible footpath remains of what was worn into granite by the moccasins of many winters, many winters ago.
Wu Wei: Inaction
My 26-year-old traditional Chinese landscape painter
unmarried Buddhist guide lifts her sunglasses and says,
We can learn from our pasts but we can’t escape them.
Every person lives inside the limits of their fate.
There is a reason for everything including our meeting,
but the truth is usually too close or too large for us to see.
A part of us will remain together even after we part—
that is one thing of which I’m certain, that in the end
we’ll become like a drop of water returning to the sky.
Every evening the crossroads in Beijing are filled with improvised ghats—platforms of crackling wood splinters surrounded by weeping relatives who drop colorful pieces of paper printed with images of household objects into the fire. They are burning the images of things the deceased may need in the other world, including things they couldn’t afford in this lifetime, like iPhones and tablet computers. The images rise with the smoke and when they disappear into darkness the objects themselves slip over to the other side.
The eldest son and daughter (or their stand-ins, if necessary) will perform this ritual every evening for forty nine days after a death in the family. At sunset, within twenty four hours of the death, two representatives of the family will leave the house and walk until they find a empty corner at a crossroads. There they sing a mantra to the spirit of the place—the Spirit of the Crossroads—guardian of the intersection of the two worlds, the place where it is easiest to pass from one side to the other, especially at dusk and just before dawn.
Once the location is honored, they settle and light incense to cleanse themselves and then the area. They sing a mantra to the Lord of the Dead as they build the ghat, and as they light it they sing another. They fill a silver platter with food and drink—whatever the departed most enjoyed—and sing a mantra to those who serve the Lord of the Dead. Then they perform a ritual for the ancestors who have gone before and spread out their favorite foods and drinks as well.
Then it is time to sing the mantra that’s intended to attract the newly dead. At the end of every couplet, they toss colored slips of paper into the burning ghat. The newly dead often do not know that they are dead and wander around in their old routines in a confused and dreamlike state in a shadow world that exists parallel to this one, where the dead gather. The odors of the offerings, the incense, the gifts and prayers are meant to catch their attention and draw them to the open flame. Once they have their attention, the prayers are meant to instruct them on the challenges they will face over their first nine nights. At dawn following the ninth night the spirit passes over.
But inbetween worlds there are challenges, there are puzzles to be solved, there are choices to be made, there are traps whose sole purpose is to mislead you. And you’re confused. You don’t have a body, but you don’t really understand the idea that you’re dead because you’re the same consciousness, so how can you be dead?
That is why the ritual has been reserved for the eldest sons and daughters—by chanting the mantras and prayers over and over in the correct order with full concentration it is certain that after death they will have an easier path through the treacherous passage between the two worlds.
Over the course of forty-nine nights the mourners will see many things. They will see that grieving makes all social classes equal. No house is lucky enough to avoid death. The mourners will see that they are not alone in their grieving, that they are actually part of a vast and noble pilgrimage—every night different and every night the same, for thousands of years—to the Land of the Dead and back again.
They perform the rituals in their own neighborhoods, and those on the other corners are likely to be their neighbors. And over forty nine days they will become intimate with the many faces of death—the untimely death, the accidental death, the suicide, the death in childbirth, burying a child, the death too soon, rape and murder, the plague, disease, the death in anger, the death in fear.
As new families arrive over the course of the forty nine days, they will be joined by people who walked past them just yesterday, never imagining they would be joining them tonight. It is rare for anyone to know in the morning that they will be praying at the crossroads that evening, of course, but after dark the streets fill with sweet almost overwhelming incense and black bitter stinging smoke. In the warm months, when the windows are open, you can hear the sounds of prayers and grieving through the night, so the fact of death is never far from your mind.
At dawn, as others are walking to work, they are walking home from the charnal grounds and look it—hollow eyed, shuffling, long faced, slumped shoulders, faces streaked and puffy. They are repeating a mantra that reminds everyone within hearing that tonight it’s someone else but one day the person who is being mourned will be you.
Following the forty ninth night, a great feast is laid out and everyone in the neighborhood is invited. This is when they report any wisdom they have gathered in the Land of the Dead. Sometimes it comes as a vision, sometimes as a song, sometimes it’s a prophecy and sometimes it’s a message and sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes there has already been another death in the family and the ritual continues.
On the way back to the hotel tonight, I passed a mother in a plain white cotton sleeping gown standing on a streetcorner with a crying baby in front of a burning building. There were white blisters on her fingertips and the palms of her hands and she was cradling the baby on a charred white blanket spread across her forearms. She swayed back and forth with the babe in her arms, but it was an odd and jerking rhythm and mostly the child was screaming. And the mother was screaming like someone who’s trying to convince others that there is someone still alive inside the burning building.
Families out for their after-dinner stroll gather, arm-in-arm, frowning. Sometimes they walk up to the grieving woman. Sometimes they whisper a few words of consolation and sometimes they silently bow, their fingertips on their moving lips. One woman placed her left hand on her heart, covered it with her right hand and frowned, her cheeks shiny with tears, sighing and bowing, then her head hanging loosely from her neck for a very long time, sobbing. The woman with the baby stared at her blankly, as if an interruption, and scowled, her eyes wet and red, trying to focus, her jaw slack, the fire turning her skin red, yellow, orange. Across the street red and gold fabric swirls in the updraft of smoky light for a swirl or two before it is sucked back into the furnace.
Flying FIsh, Forbidden City, Beijing
Chinese Music, Part I: Selections from The Art of the Chinese Harp, by Xiao Ying
It turns out that I don’t really care for Chinese music. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve researched it, I have sought out recommended titles, I have listened to every piece of Chinese music I could find, but I find that the only strictly Chinese music I could stand listening to was an edited version of this album by Xiao Ying. I can’t find any information on the artist, but it’s likely a woman’s name.
Spring in Snowy Mountains
Moon Over Western River
Waters and Mountains
The Sound of the Temple Moon
Article written by Randy Roark
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.