Islands

There are themes touched upon in Part I, “Collage Dream Memories,” and expanded in Part III, “Islands.”

On page 8, two major themes are symbolically presented—death and forgiveness.

“His whispers spilled holy words on the stairs as his feet thumped grand periods after each.

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

in …

the …

night …”

How do you come to grips with sudden death (in this story, a brother) with dark secrets and forgiveness (a drunken mother)? Both themes are explored in Parts I and III. Death is first introduced in the opening dream and its brief meditation with all that the character “Joseph” sees at the end of the dream. What he sees are all the dissolving elements of matter, and he asks, “But was it nothing?…” It could be the next thought is nihilism, but instead he wakes up to reality. This reality in Buddhism is conventional reality, which may tend to be perceived as always present—eternalism, the extreme of nihilism. This is further explored in Part I in a series of questions concerning the death of Joseph’s brother, Emil. An actual “meditation on emptiness” is briefly described in section III, pages 201-203.

The forgiveness of the drunken mother is found emerging in the monastery stories of Part III through the loving nature of the monk Tenzin and the story of the gift of a coat. The concept that all sentient beings were once your mother is a powerful one in Buddhism. This theme is brought out in a humorous story involving the tiniest monk, the Abbot of a renowned monastery, and a fly. What Joseph rejects in Buddhist logic (pages 149-160), he finds in the humor, love, and compassion of the monks at S____ monastery.

On the road to forgiveness Joseph asks (page 150), “Could he call himself the prisoner of existence?” That may be a question for us all.

From the disillusion at the end of Part II is born the spiritual journey in Part III. A section in the last chapter, “The Jewel,” is alluded to in early fragments of the couple’s dream book on page 5. Brief stories in “The Jewel” retell the entire book of Jewels of Change as a Buddhist allegory within Victoria’s dream. Is Jewels of Change a well-disguised Buddhist allegory that the reader may only recognize at book’s end and all a dream hinted at in the beginning in the dream book? Parts II and III are born from personal experience, and perhaps at the end points of all our lives, looking back over the arc of its beginning, can be found a Buddhist allegory as I have, or set in some Greek or Roman myth, as might others.

The theme of beauty is never obvious, as little in this book is. For Joseph (page 199), “Buddha emerged as an artist whose art rose to the height of spiritual mastery…All of us, each one, owned some part of the Buddha of Beauty within. As it was for Joseph, so it was for everyone. For Joseph it was to set the Buddha free.” And as it is mentioned, Joseph has been writing some sort of Book of Life—it is his setting the Buddha free.

On page 201 there is a brief discussion of past lives, a hint of the title’s meaning, and its relation to beauty.

Emil’s death came between two events that remade his world. Less than a year after Emil died, Joseph went to past-life therapy sessions. He reasoned that if he, Joseph, lived before, so too would have Emil. He realized that the truth or falsity of past lives rested in no reality so firm as to be touched. He could feel and see those selves so strongly he knew them as well as all those lost selves in his present life. Whether Joseph was an ancient Tibetan warrior, a European bowman of the Dark Ages, an old Indian fisherman yogi, a French swordsman betrayed by a woman he could not see, or a dumb girl listening to opera, they told him a story as if it were so. For Joseph, the truth could only be, as if it were so.

There was one vision, a sense of what life was for him. It seemed when the French swordsman was killed, he saw the crumpling body drop. The self that rose was an old Indian yogi. Joseph then saw nothing. He felt bodiless, formless, and floated. He saw a design above him, as if on a ceiling. He scanned it, taking it in. The design was intricate, mathematical, possessed him, yet floated like a cloud in the sky. Joseph said to his guide, “I know it. I know it now! I can see it! It’s like an Escher. Do you know Escher?”

“No,” the guide answered.

Against a wall and down from the design there was a work of art in a frame, a ceramic, jewels tumbling, throwing out light in an infinite number of luminous rays, moving, from black holes of darkness to wonder of all things bright. He knew it at once as the essence of his world. It was moving, changing, always transforming itself. He could never recapture it, for whatever it was once, it would never be again. All the grand designs on the ceiling went there; all those miraculous and precise forms became lost in the appearance of change. The only thing Joseph could come away with was the impermanence of all and how beautiful it all was, and maybe it was beautiful just because it could never be again.

On pages 151-152 there is a narrative on the symbol of the swastika briefly discussed in a previous blog, “Why I wrote this book.”

In Buddhism was reality a matter of perception or one correct view interpreted by four schools of thought? A dark coiled object on a road formed the classic Buddhist question. Was it a snake or a rope? A new form of that question emerged from the ancient symbol of a swastika woven into a thangka hanging over the edge of the altar.

Joseph saw it under electric candles that now seemed dimmer. He looked down at the projections of his fingers, the world mountain and islands, then up again at the swastika, its strong, angular lines as if in motion. Just what did this symbol mean?

Recently, that became a question when a Kalmuck man, removing his shoes, entered the temple to explain the form’s significance to the barefoot reporter and photographer who were doing a story on community and temple.

The ancient Indian symbol meant well-being, a benediction. A holy sign the Kalmuck related and said the Nazis had twisted the arms from its original right-angled position.

No, the reporter retorted, voice adamant. Surely it means perverted madness. It must be removed for a photo. Voices grew louder. Discussion rose to argument. Finally, the reporter tapped the camera carrier on the shoulder, and in a flash they were gone.

Joseph steadied the mandala formed by his interlocked fingers, the great center mountain and the four islands of the four directions. He looked up at the altar and pondered the sharp right-angled arms of the swastika.

The woven cloth thangka held what the Kalmuck did not reveal and the reporter did not know, that an artist, one of the first, created the earliest swastika and revealed it to the world as the wild gander in its awesome and mysterious migration. In the appearance of motionless form this early artist captured an instant of the wild bird in flight. Yet, the form, at rest, vibrated a paradox, in a sweep—the constant of change.

The world mandala in Joseph’s hands remained at rest while he stared at the swastika. Suddenly, Joseph imagined features growing the holy horror.

Then he blinked. The swastika remained still, movement captured in an instant at rest.

At the end of “The Jewel,” the book’s last chapter, page 218, “Four geese lighted upon the lake, having flown from long ago through a dark night.” So ends their flight. And the book. A different take on age-old themes.

 

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