Dancing with the Dalai Lama

by Leanne Ogasawara

Karen knorrThe other night, I was dancing with the Dalai Lama. We were in a large auditorium that looked like a high school gym– and in front of a packed audience sitting in the bleachers, we danced, just the two of us–cheek to cheek. I am not actually such a huge fan of his holiness– so this all was rather unexpected.

As we were floating and twirling ballroom style out on the dance floor, he pressed me very close, and giggled– and I started to laugh; and then still in my dream, I thought, “Wow, maybe I died and this is heaven…”


I've long wondered, why it is that right from the very start, peopled have preferred Dante's Inferno to his Paradiso?

Am I the only one who– while utterly unable to imagine hell– often finds myself lost in dreams of paradise?

It's true, I love to fantasize about paradise.

Often imagining it like a Persian garden, there is the intoxicating fragrance of roses, jasmine and gardenias. There is music and gently perfumed spring breezes. And people picnic, unendingly.

In the garden of paradise, Adonis flies a kite, as a group of philosophers wander nearby discussing Aristotle. As they talk, they are looking for the name of God in the pattern of the rose petals in the garden, like in my favorite story by Borges. They are just close enough to hear– and just close enough to be able to join in in the conversation too. Averroes and Avicenna are there; as are Izumi Shikibu and Lady Rokujo who are debating with each other in the most charming way. It is all something like the Tale of Genji with banquets and poetry contests.

And in this world of play and beauty, in addition to unending picnics, I imagine there is also an exquisite calendar of ceremonies, feasts and rituals—where just like in the world of Genji; sutras are read, incense is burned and dances performed by little children in wings– not because anything will come of it, but merely because it is beautiful and therefore Good.

Picnics that never end include Persian yogurts and every type of biryani; the finest oolong tea, like champagne, from the misty mountains of Formosa, or green tea served in heirloom teabowls made by Tea Masters with long lineages. The tea is served with beautiful sweets from my favorite shop in the Province of the Clouds faraway– everything the verdant color of new grass. There is Japanese chocolates and dimsum from Hongkong so delicious I brush away tears of delight with 豆腐花 so divine– well, I know that I must be in Paradise….

There are rare Brunello and Burgundy ~~and pizza with a view

And in the distance, a great ziggurat rises toward the shimmering blue sky. Containing every book ever written, it stands as a place of great possibility. My astronomer is there in the ziggurat with Borges writing his books–for paradise is a library, he says. I rarely go there. For I prefer my unending picnicking under the Chinar trees listening to the sound of wind in the trees. A book of poems by Ezra Pound lies there on the blanket– just within reach.

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise

They say, Cleopatra herself lived in a cloud of incense and in a dream of purple. Perfumed in Frankincense, myrrh, lotus, sandalwood, and rose water… she traveled the Nile on a boat, said Shakespeare, adorned with purple sails so perfumed, that the winds were love-sick with them

Surely the winds of paradise are like that–perfumed and love-sick.

The Buddhist bird of paradise is known in Sanskrit as Kavalinka (迦陵頻伽). It is the bird whose singing begins before it even hatches from its egg. Little voices of paradise, their song was thought to be so beautiful, they were likened to angels.

Angels, arias and manicured gardens being common to most people's ideas of paradise….mountains loom large, rivers flow purely.

In Dante's Paradise–there is no concept of enlightenment. The soul is not a resource to be improved or utilized and people do not aim for detachment or self-perfection of any kind. All that is required is love and hope.

That's it.

Faith and Fidelity are just other names for it.

Kant would be displeased, not doubt; but in the realm of souls, reality is nothing but thought and spirit. And this, then, becomes the definition of inner freedom. For in the burning hot Medieval heart; true love, true play, and any true heart's occupation (whether according to Kierkegaard or Proust or even Plato) will –no matter what– be an end in and of itself. Like a kiss, like love, like everything worthwhile, paradise revolves around beauty and playfulness. Souls being guided by their metaphysical pursuit of the Good/God —generate a reality that necessarily determines itself (rather than being externally or causally generated). Nothing is instrumental or useful for this is a world of transcendent ends. That was Dante''s world, I think. And there, Kant doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Karen-Knorr-Photos-Yellowtrace-055So anyway, I just finished this wonderful book, called Coffinman: the Diary of a Buddhist Mortician by Shinmon Aoki.

It is the book that the Japanese film, Departures was based on.

I cannot recommend it enough.

A kind of accidental mortician, Shinmon Aoki has much to say about death and dying–and his meditation on the subject is supremely life-affirming. It is just an incredible story about a man who becomes a mortician not by any plan but because he cannot find any other work. But in the process of doing this job, his Buddhist faith blossoms in a very beautiful and perhaps unexpected way. And he becomes much more sensitive to life.

There is a long tradition in Japan of meditating on death.

One of my favorite stories by Tanizaki, Captain Shigemoto's Mother has the father of Captain Shigemoto taking refuge in religion after being left heartbroken at the loss of his (very) young wife. In order to rid himself of his ceaseless desire of her, he takes to visiting exposed grave sites so that he can meditate on rotting corpses.

This is called the Contemplation of Impurity. Arthur C Brooks, in the New York Slimes, wrote a bit about the Contemplation of Impurity in a piece he did earlier this year, called To be happier start thinking more about your death. In the piece, Brooks talks about the Buddhist meditation practice of Asubha bhāvanā, in which practitioners contemplate corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself was said to have meditated in this way–gazing at corpses. It is said to help one move beyond the demands of the body (especially lust).

Satipatthana Sutta

If a monk sees a corpse dead one, two, or three days—swollen, blue and festering—he should think: “My own body is of the same nature; such it will become, and will not escape it.” His mindfulness is established, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. And if a monk sees a corpse thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms—Or a body reduced to a skeleton, with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons—Or a skeleton, blood-besmeared and without flesh—Or reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions—here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone; the pelvis, spine and skull—He should apply this perception to his own body.

With Buddhism, Christianity shares a love of relics and an abhorrence of corporeality. This was what led Luther to famously refer to his own body as, 'this corpse, this sack of maggots'”

But is this a bad thing?

Charles Taylor says that a life properly lived affirms death and destruction. Indeed, Plato insisted in Phaedo: “For is not philosophy the practice of death?”

I do truly believe that philosophy is and should be just that: a preparation for death. Death is not something that should be hidden away or brushed under the rug, says the accidental mortician. He says in a culture that focuses exclusively on youth, health and the living, we end up somehow less alive.


I will end this with my own favorite meditation on death and heaven, written by journalist Robert Krulwich.

Mourning the loss of his friend the Great Oliver Sacks, he describes the first time Oliver Sacks saw heaven.

I must have read this short essay a dozen times this year because I loved the images of “heaven” so much. For according to Krulwich, Oliver Sacks considered heaven as a color; and not just any color either–for heaven was Giotto's elusive color blue. And Oliver Sacks was hell-bent on experiencing that heavenly color without having to die to do it!!

Krulwich describes it like this–(enjoy!):

The great painter Giotto had tried to paint heaven in indigo. He worked with a number of powders but hadn’t found the right formula. Oliver imagined it to be an “ecstatic blue,” bluer than the lapis lazuli stone favored by the ancient Egyptians, a blue inspired by the seas of the ancient Paleozoic (“How do you know that?” I asked. “I just do,” he said). He wanted, desperately, to see it.

This was a brazen desire. True indigo is the unicorn of colors, maybe hidden from us, Oliver thought, “because the color of heaven was not to be seen on Earth.” But he would try.

He swallowed his cocktail. He waited for 20 minutes. Then he turned to a blank white wall in his kitchen and shouted (“To whom?” I asked. “Eternity,” he said), “I want to see indigo now—now!”

Krulwich on Oliver SacksSha-Zaam!

Krulwich imagining Olver Sacks in heaven suggests that maybe he is not floating around with celestial angels “up there” but instead is

up there floating in an indigo-rich Paleozoic sea, surrounded not by angels but by pale blue cuttlefish, his favorite cephalopods. And looking up at him, winking quietly, I see a small crab, very much alive, that may be the only creature on Earth to experience Oliver’s favorite color all the time. I recently made this discovery (that heaven may be hiding here) in a poem by Mark Doty.

Isn't that great? Mark Doty's poem below.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this—
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.


Photographs by Karen Knorr

Jodo Shinshu/ Rennyo's On White Ashes

Meditation on cancer and Climate Change (NYTimes)

My old post on blue: Sacre Bleu(瑠璃色

The First Time Oliver Sacks Saw Heaven