Death doesn’t exist. Certainly not as an entity, or a place. Even if we consider it a process, we have no good way to determine its limits: where does it begin? When does it end? Either way, we argue over when precisely it happens, and even disagree with each other occasionally over whether someone is or isn’t dead. When I write ‘Death doesn’t exist,’ part of what I mean is also that the word death refers to the absence of something, and that an absence isn’t itself a thing. The Buddhist notion of rebirth arranges these familiar difficulties into a complementary loop of sorts: death begins at birth, and begins again with the next birth. Ending only happens if you attain enlightenment. No more birth, no more death.
Posts Tagged ‘Death’
Ahh, mid-term season, when all individual research writing shrieks to a halt in the face of grading, grant-writing, recommendation-letters, etc., etc. Perhaps that’s what makes us think of death so frequently in this season, and not merely the traditional association of Autumn with death and renewal. Whatever causes it, the interwebz have been throwing a lot of death-related material out there for us to enjoy.
A new Pyu burial site found in Sri Ksetra, Burma/Myanmar, and consists of “urns collected in a brick structure.” (via Southeast Asian Archaeology Weblog) This urban settlement thrived from 4th-9th centuries CE. The Pyu are one of the major four ethnic groups considered indigenous to the regions, the Khmer, Pyu, Cham, and Mon. One of the many interesting things about the burial site, to me, is the existence of grouped urns, as is still standard practice among the Khmer.
The “Kola” group are an ethnic Burmese group that used to thrive in the Pailin region of Cambodia, especially as gem miners and merchants. Although sometimes described as ‘disappeared,’ it might be better to say that the Kola in Pailin have been supplanted: it’s still possible to find people who describe themselves as Kola, but I have not heard of a
“Kola community.” Regardless, a Kola Stupa in the region has just been restored, and it looks AWESOME.
Buzzfeed had a nice photo essays on the Bolivia’s “Day of the Skulls.” Perhaps a bit focused on the ‘transgressive’ aspects (transgressive especially to the presumed Norteamericano viewer, I think), but still a number of very nice photos.
Or perhaps you’d like to take a peek at a lovely necropolis? (surprisingly high property values!)
Atlas Obscura finally got around to profiling the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa. Pretty much the sort of detail you’d imagine.
In the Czech Republic, Atlas Obscura also profiled the ossuary of Křtiny, in which the skulls of approximately 1,000 people are (mostly) painted with a black laurel-wreath design.
Some of the links and images in the posts above are taken from the newly-published book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, by Paul Koudounaris, which looks grimly beautiful.
A fascinating new mortuary practice in South Korea is catching press; it’s being cast as a new way to mourn, but I wonder if that’s the whole story. And if so, why now? Interesting stuff. The practice? Turning the remains of loved ones into prayer beads.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post anything here; on the other hand, my book writing is going well. Here are some things that I wanted to post here, with very little commentary. Just getting caught up:
General Academic, and Religious Studies, Links
Ever curious about what the Religious Studies Book Review is really for? What it’s supposed to accomplish? Or, how to write one? Here’s the first third of a good essay on the topic! The Nature and Function of the Religious Studies Book Review (Part 1 of 3): Writing the Book Review
This excellent visualization of the relative isolation of various academic departments. Hint: anthro is very isolated!
As the financing and operation of the higher education industry becomes an increasingly heated topic, expect more radical discussions, or even (as here, pretty conservative discussions of radical topics) like this – “Do Faculty Strikes Work?” – in places like Inside Higher Ed.
Here’s a nice piece on “New Religious Movements” as an interpretive category. Good to read, for those interested in religion and innovation.
Good advice for the adoption of a ‘Five Year Plan’ strategy (with important distancing rhetoric from the USSR and the PRC!) for academic careers, from Kerim Friedman over at Savage Minds.
This brutal quote about Gender and Success in the Academy, from Kate Clancy’s excellent “The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar”:
To be clear, it’s not that academia weeds out the weak. The research on attrition for women and people of color indicates it’s not that women who leave are not confident, or are weak, but that they know their self-worth and have decided they’d rather take their toys to another sandbox where they’ll actually be appreciated.
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.
Those following the fascinating development of Ven. Luon Savath, Khmer Buddhist monk currently promoting “Engaged Buddhism” in Cambodia and receiving a lot of negative pressure from authorities as a result, will be interested to know that Ven. Savath has his own page, and hosts live and recorded lectures there.
Prof. Bryan Cuevas, whose work on death and the afterlife in Buddhism is the subject of a new book by him, is interviewed in an hour-long interview on the great site, New Books in Buddhist Studies!
General Funereal Studies
A good critique of the interminably stupid iGrief masquerading as compassion in the world, with the passing of Steve Jobs. I certainly wish the man no ill, and do not begrudge him compassion, but am more than a little disturbed at the hagiographical saint-making going on here, when videos like this one, below, are almost completely ignored.
A gorgeous HDR photo of a Japanese cemetery should be seen by all (from the astonishingly wonderful “Stuck in Customs“)
A small burial site found in Northern Vietnam, changing the way we think about pre-history.
Arch West, the inventor of Doritos, passed. Doritos were sprinkled on his grave. Rest in Powdery Flavor, Arch.
The great Khmer language scholar Khin Sok, also recently passed. The world of Khmer studies is considerably poorer for his passing. Rest In Peace, Lokkru.
Some Random Stuff
For my upcoming “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class, a book I’d like to read: “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice.”
And, a lovely piece from Ethnography.com on “love, duty, and marriage in a Thai novel,” on the novelist Siburapha’s “Behind the Painting,” originally published in 1938, and translated into English by David Smyth.
Both of my long-term readers know that the key concept in my work on Cambodian funerals and religion is deathpower, the social power created through the proper (moral or amoral) management of death. A colleague recommended Alfred Gell‘s monumental 1998 volume Art and Agency: an anthropological theory to me, and what do I find on p. 149 but this gem, which practically describes my work:
A Buddha statue celebrates the possibility of a ‘good death’ and monks are semi-dead individuals who aspire to the ultimate good-death condition….In a sense, then, what the relic does is make the Buddha state like the Buddha, by making it ‘dead’ through the insertion of a ‘death-substance’–in the rather paradoxical sense that Buddha-hood implies death-in-life.
I’m a great fan of Laurie Taylor’s wonderful Radio Program “Thinking Allowed,” which reviews, on a weekly basis, recent sociological scholarship. It’s a great way to keep up on a wide variety of scholarship, when you are only generally interested. For instance, I just listened to a great show about the ‘chav’ stereotype in Britain, and how it is part of an overall demonization of working class culture. They didn’t bring up the proposed etymology that the word ‘chav’ comes from Romani (aka, ‘gypsies’) word ‘chavo,’ or ‘Boy,’ and likely therefore began with an association between negative young working-class masculine behavior, and the nearly universally-despised Romani. But that’s the sort of thing that make me keep listening.
But even better, sometimes they focus on something that is part of your primary focus. In my work, of course, that means either Cambodia, Buddhism, or Death. Or maybe Religion, or Ritual. The podcast I just finished listening to was based on contemporary grave-side behavior and interviews, and continues the recent challenge to the received notion that there is a dominant ‘death taboo’ associated with impurity, decomposition, and contagion. Here’s the summary (second part of the paragraph deals with the part i’m interested in):
Cities are growing at an enormous rate all over the world. As they wrestle with overcrowding, pollution, resource vulnerability and an increasing gulf between the rich and poor what will be the dominant factor to define them? Which forces will shape the experience of urban life for the individual and will our imagination and creativity enable cities to survive into the future? The sociologist Sophie Watson and the geographer Matthew Gandy join Laurie Taylor to discuss the future of the city.
Also, the taboo of the body in the cemetery. Kate Woodthorpe reveals her research into what remains unmentionable at the graveside.
Holy Crap – I have almost never, in my entire museum-going life (and folks, I’m *married* to a curator, so I’ve been to a lot of museums) heard about an exhibit I want to see more than this one: “Life, Death, and Magic: 200 Years of Southeast Asian Art,” at the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra. the description of the exhibit is as follows:
For thousands of years, across mainland and island Southeast Asia, the deification of significant ancestors and the veneration of spirits of nature have formed the basis of traditional beliefs. It has also been the impetus for the creation of splendid and extraordinary works of art in fibre, stone, metal, wood and clay—made to protect and give pleasure to the living, to honour the ancestors and to secure safe passage for the human soul between this world and the afterlife.
Life death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art provides an evocative overview of the region’s ancestral arts and culture, from prehistoric times to the twenty-first century. Beautifully designed, it is prolifically illustrated with works of art from countries and regions including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, East Timor, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and southern China which are drawn from museums around the world and the National Gallery of Australia’s exceptional collection of Southeast Asian art.
Now, there’s no way I can raise the scratch to go see this exhibit, so I’m counting on my Australian friends to go, take photos if possible, and comment or post them somewhere. This is astonishing looking work. Thank Flying Spaghetti Monster they’re publishing a catalog. Which I’ve already ordered. Massive Hat Tip to Alison of AlisoninCambodia for the notice.
Hat tip to Igor Prawn for posting the nice graphic of the World’s Tallest Towers, including a space for the entirely hallucinatory and never-to-be built tower bragged about recently by PM Hun Sen. Phnom Penh Post.
Now that you’re all excited, here are the links:
I was shocked out of my moment-to-moment autopilot routine last night when I read Peter Watts’ eulogy for (apparently) a family member from who he appears estranged. It was a gorgeous meditation on individuality, death, continuity, and acceptance, whether he intended those responses from me or not. I’m actually going to read it in the beginning of my class on introducing Buddhism in an hour (dealing with the whole anatman/anatta issue, which brings up the problem of what does exist if we don’t. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole (short) thing:
The physical death of that organism, all this time later, is purely theoretical to me. It has no mass or inertia, no charge positive or negative. Everything’s already cancelled out. Sow; Reap; Finis. And yet by all accounts this should be a momentous occasion, should provoke some kind of spontaneous visceral or emotional response. It doesn’t. So I’ve experimented with alternate perspectives to see if I can stir something up — and I think I’ve found a viewpoint I can sort of get behind.
If you can’t respect the government, respect the people. If the Queen is corrupt, at least find something to admire in her soldiers.
The heart, for example. A muscle that beat nonstop every second of every day since 1920, almost a century’s relentless rearguard against entropy itself. Three billion beats in that time; four supertankers filled to the brim; two battleships lifted clear of the ocean. Or the eyes: miracles of incompetent design, photoreceptors straining for light through a tangle of cabling laid on top of them, not tucked away behind as any more-than-half-witted designer would have done. Sight is mechanical, did you know that? No digital electronics: pure clockwork, that far down. The visual pigment is a kind of spring-lever affair; the photon hits it and the pigment passes that impact upstream with all the elegance of a game of whack-a-mole.
Nine decades of parsing the world through those haphazard bits and pieces is nothing to sneeze at either.
And from Vaughan at Mindhacks, this lovely reference to a nice piece by ABC Radio National with psychologist Karen Redfield Jamison on Love and Loss, including the transformation of grief into a diagnosis of mental illness, when it goes on ‘too long.’ (apparently, more than six months).
“Daddy daddy, it was just like you said….now that the living outnumber the dead.”
-Laurie Anderson, Stories from the nerve bible.
Well, Laurie apparently didn’t get it quite right, though the notion alone is pretty spooky. Somebody finally visualized the numbers on this classic question.
Today is the day that Buddhists around the world mark the death of the historical Buddha, a moment called his parinirvana. Thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher for the reminder. on the BBC page about this day, they remark that
The day is used as an opportunity to reflect on the fact of one’s own future death, and on friends or relations who have recently passed away. The idea that all things are transient is central to Buddhist teaching. Loss and impermanence are things to be accepted rather than causes of grief.
Having just last week lost a woman from my family that I have routinely described as the living hearth of my extended family, I will certainly be meditating on her passing, and impermanence. I miss you, Aunt Jackie.
Now, a word about the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddhist text which describes the days leading up to the Buddha’s final nirvana:
The Mahaparinibbana sutta is the locus classicus for discussions of funerary ritual, relics, and post-mortem attitudes toward the dead. Toward the end, the Buddha gives directions for his funeral (which is expertly analyzed by John Strong in his excellent book Relics of the Buddha as a rejection of kingly, brahmanical authority and prestige), and the division of the Buddha post-cremation relics.
What is rarely noted about the text however, is the way in which the entire sutta is framed by war. At the beginning, patricide king Ajatasattu (“He who is without enemies,” largely because he seems to have murdered them all) asks the Buddha for advice on how to conquer a neighboring republic. The Buddha advises the king that as long as Ajattasattu’s neighbors continue to practice the community teachings of the Buddha – which are explicitly non-religious, and not even terribly ‘Buddhist’, but generally just good advice – he will be unable to conquer them. The king decides to go after them anyway, and begins preparations for war. Read the rest of this entry »