It doesn’t matter how you treat a dead body.  The dead wasp I vacuumed off my floor yesterday is just as dead as my great-grandfather– as far as science can tell us, anyway.  Death means a lack of mattering.  I appreciate how Buddhists try to get us comfortable with that, impossible as it may be.

The ancient Romans burned the bodies of their dead.  So do Buddhists.  And then, so did the Nazis.  I imagine the Romans burned Caesar because the flames were more beautiful than his body would shortly be.  It prevented his gorgeous form from ever being anything less than itself.  Buddhist cremations seem to be about honoring the finality of death, and emphasizing the freedom achieved by death.  Fast disposing of the body.  Gone, as everything will be gone.  The Nazis burned bodies to cover their tracks.  They showed dead bodies the same utter disrespect they showed the living.

The ancient Egyptians, for whatever reason, preserved dead bodies.  Their lives were very short, and I’m awed by the optimism they had for some future happy life somewhere else.  Christians often preserve bodies.  At least, they bury them rather than burn them, as a general rule.  Some Christians worried that Jesus won’t be able to give them a resurrected body if we burn their original one.

My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a mortician.  I always hoped this would help me deal better with death.  Sometimes I’ve thought it was ridiculous to preserve dead bodies the way that we do.  I have live flowers in my house, not dried ones, not plastic ones.  Once a week, I assess them and throw out the dead ones.  Live is live, and dead is dead, right?  It seemed false and pathetic to me, to make a dead person look like he is sleeping.  I understand it’s hard to see the dead person dead, but isn’t that the smallest part of the suffering on that day?  Aren’t you so much in numb denial that a little more deadness wouldn’t do much harm?  Doesn’t honesty help things?

In my classroom, we do not run.  We do not touch each other with anything but gentle greeting.  We do not throw things.  Running, swatting, pushing, throwing– none of these would be particularly dangerous.  But the line must be drawn well before danger.  The limit must be a goodly distance from disaster, so we all have room to back up if we realize we’ve crossed it.

What we do to treat death tenderly and honorably is more about continuous practice of tenderness and honor.  It is more about drawing a line of humanity so far past what is necessary that we are safe.  What are humans like?  the aliens ask.  I would like to answer, nothing is trash to them.  They honor even their animals and their trees.  They honor even their dead.  Behaving tenderly isn’t ever so much about the recipient, anyway.  It’s mostly about how much calmer and happier you may become.

Reasonable Doubt

This morning, driving to work, I had an epiphany: we should put Dick Cheney in a room with the administrators who okayed an adolescent girl being stripped searched and see what happens.

I sometimes have to take a hiatus from morning radio.  Sometimes morning news causes me to shout things across my apartment at no one.  Like, “Yeah, you better fucking tell me what critical intelligence you got after torturing those people!”  And that scares my cats.

Just a week after Easter, it blows my mind that some of the same people who say we live in a “Christian nation” would say that in cases of torture, the ends justify the means.  In case you hadn’t noticed, Christianity was founded by a man who preached nonviolence and then got tortured to death.  (Jesus wasn’t against confrontation, or destruction of social structures, but he did not, ever, use violence.) 

The ends do not always justify the means.  And the ends are always what show the kind of person you are, the kind of country you are.  They show what you are willing to sacrifice for peace of mind, or physical security.  And there are some things that aren’t worth sacrificing. 

We don’t have peace of mind– our military is more at risk for violent treatment when they are captured.  We don’t have physical security, either.  I don’t want to live in a police state, no matter how safe it is.  Physical security isn’t worth giving up your values.  (See either, What would Jesus do? sacrifice physical security for values; or, What would Buddha say?  you’re going to die regardless.)    

I imagine Mr. Cheney saying something like, “Well, sometimes you have to do things that are reprehensible in order to protect innocent lives.”  And then the administrator says, “That’s right!  We were only trying to keep pills away from teenagers when we stripped that shy adolescent girl naked at school and inspected her!”  And then the administrator is startled by that remark, and suddenly insecure.  Startled and insecure is a great beginning for growth.  (Aside: adolescent girls use hidden ibuprofin because they are shy, and they have nasty cramps every month.)

I’m not an Obama worshipper.  I just like Obama because he seems so reasonable.  I love the word “reasonable” in our legal system.  It is exactly the right word.  Obama says, “Open up Cuba!  But only this much,” and I think, that’s reasonable.  Let’s take our time.  He says, “Let’s release the torture memos, but not prosecute anyone.”  I think,  that’s reasonable. 

Much as I might want to watch the breakers of international law, the spitters on the Geneva Convention, squirm as they explain why they HAD to threaten the security of our own military because our country might be attacked again (as if this were a brand-new risk and not a consistent danger), I have a James Brown quote that I will rely on instead. 

I can’t verify this at all, but once I wrote it down, so it probably is James Brown.  It is as follows:  “Do I get discouraged?  No, I do not.  I just keep working, because I believe in God’s justice.”  I always think a guy involved in civil rights in the 60s has more reason to get discouraged than I do.  Whether or not you believe in God, people who condone torture have to answer to their own consciences.  If they have them, they’re feeling what they need to feel.  And if they don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. 

My larger concern is that this torture thing gets enough press and public outrage that it won’t happen again.  I feel satisfied with the outrage level, apparently 2/3 of Americans want more investigation.  That’s plenty of reasonable people, weighing the ends and the means.

Visit of the Muppet Monks

Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning. 

Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks.  I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down.  I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top.  It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing. 

They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out.  Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant.  No, that guy was just coughing.  Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise? 

Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed.  The monks went on and on.  I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop.  I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.

Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 

Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris.  My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism.  I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity.  At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends.  When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.” 

When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple.  The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together.  He was bold, cheerful, and solid.  I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah.  Why was I interested in Judaism? 

After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.

“It’s so mysterious,” I said.  “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it.  There’s so much mystery.”

“Huh,” he said.   There I was lost in ambiguity again.  But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.

Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped.  They took off their giant hats.  They bowed to the congregation.  None of the Episcopalians knew what to do.  (We bow to the altar, but not each other.)  As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap. 

It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do?  I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything.  I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.