Aboard a Portuguese Caravel
In the North Atlantic, Somewhere
Between Bermuda and Hispaniola
No light entered the hold except when four of the white men brought wooden buckets of thin, mealy mush. Three of them carried two buckets apiece; the fourth carried a whip and a pistol. The shaft of light stabbed the eyes of the frightened men and women of the Yoruba huddled below. Only if the door was left open a crack, enough for the white men to see, and only if it were left open long enough, did Abeni’s eyes adjust enough to make out the shapes of the others around her.
By the second week aboard, the manacle on the left ankle of the young teenage girl next to Abeni had cut into her flesh, and within three more days it had become infected. Monifa’s complaints of terrible itching told Abeni that the wound was festering. After the first week, Monifa cried that her leg throbbed constantly. She begged Abeni to heal her. In the dim light at feeding time, Abeni saw that the maggots were at work. If they could keep the wound clear of the dead tissue, gangrene might not set in. But soon Abeni knew that the infection had entered the girl’s blood before the maggots had done their work. The child shivered with her fever, moaning as the manacle moved against tender, grossly swollen flesh.
Abeni did not have her fetishes, but she chanted almost constantly, beseeching the gods to return them home. She also chanted and prayed for the child’s ankle to heal. She could tell that the girl was not convinced that Abeni had been initiated as a Queen Mother; she knew she appeared much too young for the rites. The elders chose her because she knew the lore and had found frequent favor with the gods. Nevertheless, she wondered if the child’s increasing infection was due to the honor being given her prematurely.
When the sailors came into the hold with their buckets of slop, Abeni leaned over to the girl, her large body already much smaller than three weeks earlier when they had been herded into the hold of the caravel. “Wake, child. Food.”
Abeni helped the girl into a sitting position, moving her left leg carefully, stopping when Monifa gasped in pain. The men gave each person a bowl of the watery mush, waited for them to consume it, the took back the bowl for the next serving for the next person. Monifa collapsed woozily against Abeni when the reek of the foreign men came close. The sailor offered the bowl and Monifa took it weakly and brought it to her lips. Abeni silently urged the girl had to swallow this meal. Nothing else would be given until the next day. She saw the child take the vile mush into her mouth, but she only held it there. Swallow, Abeni willed the girl silently. Swallow!
With an impatient snarl, the man holding the bucket struck the side of the child’s face. Mush went up her nose and the edges of the wooden bowl bit painfully into her cheeks. Helpless to control it any longer, the girl vomited yellow bile, spewing into the bowl, onto the legs of the man, and onto her own naked skin.
“Bah!” Disgusted, the crewman slapped the bowl away from her and dipped it into the bucket. He offered it to Abeni. Abeni did not reach for it. The sailor thrust the bowl at the woman again, but again Abeni ignored it. She turned instead to the sick girl next to her and resumed chanting in a soft sing-song.
Shrugging, the sailor offered the bowl to Bambidele, the man chained next to Abeni. Bambidele also refused the vomit-tainted mush. The sailor thrust it toward him again, but the man turned his head.
With a roar of Portuguese fury, the sailor stomped back to the ladder and out of the hold. His companions laughed, and continued serving the other captives. No other bowls were offered to the sick girl, Abeni, or Bambidele.
In the dark again, Abeni continued chanting until Monifa fell into a restless, fevered sleep. The Yoruba shaman rocked in place, murmuring under her breath.
“Curse them, and I will see that they cannot deliver us,” Bambidele murmured.
At first, Abeni was not certain what she had heard. “Curse them?”
“You are Queen Mother. You are familiar with Voudon?”
“It is forbidden. Voudon is not Yoruba.”
“But you know how to use it.” He said it quietly, firmly. He did not ask; he stated it as a fact.
“Yes,” said Abeni after a few moments.
“I shall take them. Give me three days.”
He could not have seen her nod in the pitch blackness, but she knew he understood her silent assent.
The next day Monifa’s fever was worse. She lay shivering, incoherent. Abeni could tell that the girl’s infection had poisoned her system; without healing herbs and a healing ritual, she would be lost, if she were not too far gone already. Abeni also knew that Bambidele had worked at his manacle all night, and that he was almost free of it. He, too, had lost flesh and no small amount of blood in his effort to free himself.
When the Portugese sailors came to distribute the daily meal, Bambidele hid his manacled foot. The light was dim enough to prevent the sailors from seeing the bloodstains on the wooden planking of the hold, but he did not risk them seeing that he was working to free himself.
They did not bother to feed Monifa. Instead, they called for another of their companions, who examined her. They conferred in their strange language, shrugged, and left.
“She needs healing!” Abeni hissed in frustration to Bambidele.
“She will not need healing for long,” he murmured back.
It took Bambidele four days. He freed himself the second day, but spent the rest of that day and the next freeing the other captives, whispering to them his plan. Abeni was relieved when the distribution of food on the third day went without incident. Bambidele refused to release the fevered teenage girl from her manacle, though. “She lies where they can see her, and they will know if she is freed,” he explained.
The fourth day’s distribution of mush also went without incident. Monifa was unconscious, and Abeni could tell from her breathing that she would die soon. The girl’s entire leg was swollen and blistered, and the swelling had begun to move into her groin and hips. From experience, Abeni knew that once it reached her torso, the girl’s suffering would end.
Hours passed. The noises above them stilled except for occasional footsteps and even less frequent calls among the sailors. It was time.
Bambidele rose, and in the darkness whispered for the others to take the irons that had held them. Some of the captives had rubbed the edges of the irons against other irons, sharpening them for better use as weapons. Bambidele gathered them around him. First he listened silently at the door for several moments, then he opened it.
Moonlight had never shone so brightly.
Abeni remained in the hold with Monifa and with the other ill captives while the healthiest of the Yoruba men and women did their work. Bambidele returned for her in less time than she expected. He freed Monifa at last, and carrying her small body in his arms he led Abeni out onto the deck.
The night was impossibly bright. The ship’s crew, about 40 men, had been stripped as naked as the Yoruba captives. Several had obvious broken bones; even more had bleeding gashes. Abeni stared at them coldly, seeing the stark fear that had replaced their cruelty.
None of the captives spoke the language of the sailors. Bambidele placed the dying girl gently on the deck. Behind Abeni the other ill and injured captives straggled from the hold to stand in a ring behind her and Bambidele.
Bambidele turned to Abeni. “Curse them,” he said.
Abeni had prepared herself for this moment. She raised her arms skyward and began a singsong chant. The Yoruba around her murmured uncertainly as they realized the words she sang were not Yoruban, but from the darker Voudon practice. Bambidele stood by silently as Abeni’s voice rose and fell in the night. Several of the Portuguese began moaning. Good, thought Abeni as she continued the ritual chant. They should be afraid.
Her first chant ended and Abeni turned to Bambidele. He handed her a wickedly curved long knife. Ritually, she cut herself on both wrists, the blood flowing freely down to cover the hilt. She approached the captain of the Portuguese. She cut his face on either cheek, then once across the width of his forehead. Several of the sailors sobbed aloud now.
Abeni caught the captain’s blood on the blade of the knife, then allowed it to drip into the mouth of the dying girl lying on the deck.
Several of the men propelled the four who had fed them every day to the front of the huddled group of sailors. Abeni had them face their companions across the body of the dying child, and she ritually carved each of their faces the same as the captain’s, again allowing their blood to feed the unconscious girl.
She began chanting again, this time swaying to her own music, her own blood dripping over the length of Monifa’s body. She whirled, and the captain’s throat bloomed red, his eyes wide, as he pitched forward. A Yoruban man caught his lifeless body before it fell onto Monifa, then tossed the corpse aside. One of the remaining four men lost control of his bowels and a second fell senseless to the deck. Contemptuously, Abeni slit their throats with two deft twists of her bloody wrists. She turned her attention to the two who remained.
One fell to his knees, apparently praying to whatever ineffectual gods he might have worshipped. Still chanting, Abeni dispatched him and moved to the fourth man. Her chanting increased in tempo and her pitch rose. She danced in front of him, not caring whether he could see her through the flood of blood washing into his eyes from his forehead.
A wind rose. Had she looked up, Abeni would have seen clouds obscuring the stars at a speed that defied nature. She was focused on her task and spared no time for the effects of the evil she called to this sea with the forbidden rite of Voudon. She felt the crackle of electricity in the air and knew that the gods answered her call. Her curse would be sanctioned by them.
At her direction, Bembidele again lifted the dying child into his arms. He followed Abeni among the mass of terrified sailors as she forced each to touch the girl’s eyes and mouth, and as she slashed each face in triple cuts, feeding their blood to the unconscious child. Those who resisted her received a fourth slash, across their throats, and were tossed aside. So did those who fainted or befouled themselves. Half the sailors remained.
The strength of the wind forced a few huge raindrops to slap against the faces of the Portuguese sailors. In the distance thunder and lightning clamored for attention. Satisfied with the attention of the gods, Abeni prepared for the last of the ritual. Her severed arteries still pumped blood over the hilt of the long knife and she felt herself weakening from her loss. Undaunted, her chanting grew stronger, but now she seated herself on the deck facing the remaining Portuguese. Bambidele lay Monifa’s body before her.
Abeni dreaded what she would have to do next. Steeling herself without losing the rhythm of her song, she raised the knife high above her head. Now arterial blood streamed the length of her arms, dripping onto her breasts, belly, and crossed legs.
With a final cry, she plunged the knife downward, striking Monifa’s thin chest almost exactly in the center. As the iron blade stopped the child’s heart, lightning struck a tall mast of the ship and thunder shook all of the people aboard to the core.
Abeni no longer chanted. The curse was in place, and the gods would decide fitting punishment.
One of the sailors cried out, pointing to the tall mast. The crow’s nest, in flames, crashed to the deck. More of the white men cried out. Three started for the flames but a gesture from Bambidele sent six Yoruba to stop them. “The gods have decreed it,” Bambidele said.
The wind grew to gale force, fanning the flames. Rain fell only in huge, hesitant drops, flung sideways. The sails on the ship would not be furled before the fury of this storm.
The deck burned through, and the flames fell into the hold where the Yoruba had been kept. With another gesture from Bambidele, the Yoruba men tossed the corpses of the dead sailors into the inferno below.
Then the Yoruba began sacrificing the living sailors as well.
The fire burned on below deck, but the rain finally came and extinguished the fire above. The ship slid lower and lower in the sea, until the seawater drowned the last spark of the fire.
Abeni looked at her fellow freed captives. She felt light-headed, but heard the gods clearly as they spoke to her. At their request, she instructed the Yoruba to enter the water with their legs together. The first to obey her cried out in surprise, then flipped over the side, swimming in delight in the newly becalmed sea.
Smiles and laughter from the sea prompted the others over the side in the same way. Soon nearly two hundred Yoruba swam, dove, and played in the waves delighting in their new abilities. Only Abeni and Bambidele remained aboard with Monifa’s body.
“We, too, shall join them.” Abeni told Bambidele.
“And the child?”
“The child was sacrificed to give us a new life.”
“Will she become like the rest?”
“No. The gods have decreed that she shall steer the ship beneath the waves.”
Abeni looked up. The sails still held the wind, despite the water sloshing gently over the deck. “The ship will continue to sail,” she said. “Its curse will not die.”
Bambidele was silent. Finally, he asked, “And who will encounter the curse? We shall live in the sea, giving birth to new generations of Yoruba with fish tails and gills. We are blessed by the gods, not cursed.”
Abeni nodded toward the charred hole in the deck, where seawater was beginning to find its way above the cinders. “They are cursed forever,” she said. “They, and their kind, and their kin.” Where they encounter this ship, steered by Monifa of the Yoruba, they will feel the wrath of the curse, and will share the fate of those men.”
Bambidele nodded. “But if the ship is sailing the bottom of the sea, how will anyone encounter it?”
“They will encounter it from above. When a ship casts its shadow on Monifa’s ship, Monifa will call it under the waves, just like this one is being called.”
Water nearly surrounded them on the deck. “It is our time,” Abeni said. “I am weak, and will need help.”
Bambidele stood, then stooped to pull her upright. She leaned heavily against him. He helped her to the edge of the water, then lowered her carefully over the side. He felt vitality return to her, and to confirm it she lifted her face and smiled.
“Now you,” she said as she swam a few feet away from the ship.
He carefully kept his legs together as he slid over the side. Then with a sudden laugh he flipped into the water, displaying his flukes to the disappearing stars and the lightening sky.
Yesterday in Little Rock, ground was broken on something amazing.
I say it’s amazing, because here in the Bible Belt, there is precious little tolerance for non-Christian points of view. If one isn’t Christian, one is unknowably alien, and to some, one is completely suspect.
Isn’t this a Christian nation? (Well, no, actually this country isn’t a theocracy at all.) Without Christian values, aren’t we likely to devolve into moral depravity? (No. Christians don’t have a monopoly on moral behavior – never have had and never will have.) But we all should accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior! (Says who? Jesus? That has all the logic of a parent whose justification is, “Because I said so!”)
“Anne, you’re an atheist.” I hear the condemnation, and I take umbrage. I prefer the term “polyatheist.” There are a lot of gods I don’t believe in. And no doubt, anyone reading this is also a polyatheist. There are lots of gods that have been worshipped over the eons of humanity, and I’d bet my money that not a single reader of this essay believes in very many of them.
Christianity adopted many pagan traditions as it evolved. Celebration of the solstices and equinoxes are among those traditions. Christmas falls within a few days of the winter solstice, as does Hanukkah. Likewise, do the celebrations called Saturnalia, Maruaroa o Takurua, Deuorius Riuri, Amaterasu, Yule, Bodhi Day (also known in Buddhism as Rohatsu), Hogmanay, Soyal, Zagmuk, Beiwe, Shabe-Yalda, Lussi Night, Meán Geimhridh, Brumalia, Lenaea (the ancient Greek Festival of Wild Women), Alban Arthuan, Choimus, Inti Raymi, Maidyarem, Karachun, Makara Sankranti, Ziemassvētki, and Perchta. This list is by no means exhaustive. We will never know the many ways the winter solstice and the days surrounding it were marked by paleo-humans, but they left unwritten records of the fact that the event was noted and celebrated. Places like Stonehenge make drawing this conclusion inescapable.
So what is so groundbreaking in Little Rock?
The fact that a group of non-Christians have been allowed to place a display on the capitol grounds explaining the significance of the winter solstice. Last year the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers asked the Arkansas Secretary of State for permission to erect a display and were refused the opportunity. This year, they again asked permission and again, were denied. So they filed suit through the ACLU.
This, in a place where the State Constitution makes discrimination against atheists legal!
You don’t believe me? See Article 19, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution:
“No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”
Last February a rational thinking legislator tried to get a resolution passed to pave the way to repealing that section of the Constitution, but, sadly, it went nowhere.
But hope springs eternal. Perhaps even Arkansas will someday be seen as progressive, or at least not medieval.
I am not a Christian.
I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.
I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.
That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.
My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.
My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.
I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.
When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.
His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.
So why did I go to church? I went for my son.
The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.
Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.
Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.
One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.
I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.
In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.
My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.
In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.
Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)
I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.
I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.
I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.
Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?
I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.
Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.
When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.
No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.
I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.
To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.
For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.
Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.
Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.
It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.
We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.
I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.
I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.
I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.
I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.
My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.
I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.
We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.
Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.
My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.
Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.
No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.
Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.
My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.
I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.
It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!
But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.
I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.
As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.
When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.
But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.
Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….
I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.
Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.
“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”
He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.
He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.
Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…
Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.
I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.
When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.
Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.
Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.
Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”
That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.
My Dad was a great man because he listened.
I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.
I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.
I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.
Imagine that you discover a document that absolutely proves whether or not God exists. Upon reading the document and finding the truth, you must decide whether or not to share the proof with the world. Would you?
Would it make a difference if the document proved the opposite of what you believed until you discovered it?
(Assume, for purposes of this question, that the document itself is proof enough)
In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine became angry with him and she went away to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. Judges 19:1-3
“It’s Bobby Wayne!”
The shock at hearing my husband’s name was only slightly less than the shock of hearing it spoken with such pleasure by my father. Exchanging a look with Mama, I moved to the kitchen window. The familiar F-150 was indeed in the driveway, and Daddy, who had been working on his old Camaro under the shade of the live oak, was stuffing a shop rag in his hip pocket and walking toward the truck with a grin on his face.
I couldn’t believe it. Daddy knew why I had left. The meth had led Bobby to more and more erratic behavior, and by the time I was able to get the money together to get back home I was practically unable to use my left arm any more. I think Bobby had broken it at least twice, and the second time he didn’t let me go to the hospital for two weeks. They said they’d have to break it again and do surgery, and he said he didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it never did heal right. Finally it seemed like the muscles just seemed to quit working in it.
But Daddy was greeting him like a long lost son, not the abuser of his only daughter.
Bobby stayed three days. By Monday morning, Daddy had loaded my things into the bed of the pickup and told me my place was with my husband. Mama didn’t argue about it any more after Daddy popped her in the mouth Saturday afternoon. I had no choice. Bobby had been making sweet promises about how good things were going to be. I thought that if things got bad I’d just walk out again.
We were on the outskirts of the city, about an hour and a half from home, when Bobby told me he had to go see a man there for business. Since the only business Bobby ever did involved things like guns and drugs, I knew we weren’t likely to go to a good neighborhood. I was right.
We were in an area that had clearly seen better days. “Urban blight” is the euphemism for it. Porches sagged without anyone standing on them. Graffiti covered everything from the walls of the homes to the fire hydrants to the sidewalks, and I could understand none of the writing. No one ever taught me this other language or the script in which it was written.
Bobby parked on the street in front of what looked like a store front that had been converted to living quarters. Before getting out of the truck he reached under his seat and removed his pistol. He checked it to be sure it was loaded, then stuck it into his pants at the waist, covering it with his t-shirt. “Stay in the truck,” he said.
As I waited, tough looking men drove by. I saw no women. No children played outside. Finally I lay down on the seat and slept.
Bobby had been inside almost three hours when a group of men approached the truck. When they tapped on the window I sat up, confused for a moment. An ugly scar bisected the cheek of the tall man who demanded Bobby’s whereabouts through the slightly lowered window. Wordlessly, I pointed at the building. The tall man stomped off, his followers behind them. There were about ten of them.
They pounded on the door, and although they apparently talked with whomever was on the other side, I could hear nothing. I saw the angry looks on the men’s faces, though. I saw two unsheath knives. Another’s gun was poorly concealed in the waistband of his jeans. A man on the edge of that crowd leaned down and picked up a piece of pipe.
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” – Judges 19:22-24
The door opened then, and I saw an older man holding a young girl by the arm. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old and she looked terrified. He shoved the child toward the crowd of men, but the tall one with the scar pushed her back inside. There was more discussion. Gesturing, and then loud voices told me that they wanted my husband, they wanted him now, and they wanted him dead.
Bobby had taken the keys with him when he went inside. I locked the doors of the truck and sat in the middle of the seat. I was afraid, but I didn’t panic until I heard the thundering demand from the tall, scarred man: “If he won’t come out here and answer us like a man, he’s a pussy. We want the pussy. If you don’t give us that pussy, we’ll take his other pussy!” He was pointing at the truck. He was pointing at me.
The men surrounded the truck. Terrified, I refused to open the doors. The man with the pipe struck the window on the passenger side. It took him several tries, but finally it shattered and he reached inside and unlocked the door. They pulled me out of the truck. At first I screamed my husband’s name. Then I simply screamed.
They more than raped me.
Every man in that crowd had his turn, and several of them had more than one turn in more than one place on my horrified body. I lost track of the number of times each took me, and the way each took me. My abdomen felt near to exploding, then was numb. Two at once, three at once, there were more than I could count. I knew I was bleeding because they pulled away from me drenched in my blood.
Apparently their access was not easy enough, because they pulled my legs apart to more easily get at me from front and back at the same time. My hips and thighs cracked audibly, and I knew I would not be walking again any time soon.
When they forced my mouth open to defile me there, too, I bit down. Mercifully I felt only the first few of their blows to my head. After that, I lost consciousness.
As morning appeared the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. – Judges 19:26-27
“Get up. We are going.”
I lay on the pavement at the door to the house. I couldn’t answer. My jaw was probably broken, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth were gone. Painfully I lifted my head slightly and dropped it again. I could only see out of my right eye, and Bobby looked blurry even out of it.
He reached down and yanked on my arm. I screamed wordlessly. It was obviously broken and the shoulder was probably dislocated as well. My legs had no feeling in them. I couldn’t walk. Bobby dragged me whimpering to the truck and threw me in the passenger side, ignoring the fact that I was naked and the broken glass was ripping my skin to shreds.
I died on the way home.
When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. – Judges 19:29
What I found to be humorous about the whole affair was that he packaged up the parts of my body and mailed them to the men in that crowd. He also mailed a piece of me to the man in whose house he had hid. He sent my head to my parents. Daddy opened the package and vomited. I laughed.
I haunt them all. The pieces of my flesh that were sent to each man allow me to stay with him. The fact that their flesh is part of me because of that awful night allows me to stay as long as I wish. I have learned to give them boils, to call lice and fleas to their hairiest regions, to drench them in a stench so powerful none can stand near them, to afflict them with breath so fetid even their vicious dogs turn away from them. They don’t sleep at night, these twelve men who wronged me. The man whose seed created me, the man whose seed claimed me as his wife, and the ten men whose seed defiled me against my will do not sleep because of the wrongs done to me.
The thirteenth man, the one whose seed never became a part of me, is haunted by his own daughter, whose reproachful eyes remind him of the woman he sacrificed, and remind him that he nearly sacrificed her.
She prays to the bit of finger she saved from the rotting flesh that was delivered to their door by an unsuspecting postman. She prays to me to help her escape the madman she calls her father.
She will kill him soon.
I will help her.
Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.
This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.
Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.
The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.
The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.
As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.
The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.
Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”
The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.
Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”
Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”
The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.
When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”
After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.
The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.
Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.
The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”
On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.
In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.
Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.
Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.
Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.
Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.
The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.
That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.
The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.
Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.
Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.
As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.
Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.
Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.
Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.
Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.
:::END OF SPOILER:::
The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:
Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”
“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.
When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”
When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.”
Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”
Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”
Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”
Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”
Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”
Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”
The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.