fire puja

last night at the Walt Disney hall we went to a performance of Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia, a crazy opera based on the story by Dante, full of intense, super-intellectual music, with text in Latin, Dutch, English and Italian. one of my favorite lines was “[the three furies] screamed so loud that I pressed myself against my poet.” good idea. the whole thing started with a “Hic sunt,” in the middle came a blitz on Italian families that had “gone down the tubes:” Ormanis, Ughis, Catellinis, Ravignanis, Della Pressas, Piglis, Sachettis, Giuochis, Calfuccis, Sizis, etc. and it ended with a children’s chorus singing “These are all my last notes for you. And if you do not get it, you won’t get the Last Judgement. You will never get it, ever.”

seems a fitting prelude to a Tibetan fire puja we attended this afternoon for a friend who was in need of a major karmic purge. for the offering we were told to bring flowers from the garden, some dried fruit, and, since the Lama was a nut for oolong tea our friend asked if we could bring a few bags of the good stuff as well.

our friend had just finished putting together her new BBQ when we showed up, and into it was stacked several logs of firewood. apparently she had purchased the BBQ earlier today since late last night she found out the movable fire pit she was going to borrow didn’t fit, no way no how, into her car. while i helped roll up newspaper to put underneath the logs, a couple others assembled the giant pile of “substance,” as the Lama’s son later called it. two bottles of wine, one of them labeled “Bitch” were opened, and i heard one of the women say “pour a glass of wine, a glass of milk and a glass of water, small glass for the water.” now that’s my kind of a party.

when the chanting started, the fire began smoking a little so the Lama’s son went to add some fuel. i guess there’s a little bit of irony to the fact that he chose to burn an issue of LA Yoga. despite exuding weird fumes from the coated paper catching on fire, it did the job nicely. the son was dressed in traditional red robes which he kept out of the BBQ with grace, but his father, the Lama, was casually dressed in a soft sweater and a Tilly-like looking hat that had a pin on it, an “I heart MOCA” or a “Save Tibet” pin or something, it was hard to read in the sunlight.

into the fire by the bowlfuls went a great mixture of rice, sugar, flour, barley, barley flour, dried fruit, chunks of what looked like Kryptonite, shiny baubles that looked like beads, and sticks and sticks of incense. Occasionally the son tossed in a bundle of wild flowers, herbs or incense, or poured honey from a cute honey bear, sprinkled a few drops of water from a rosemary twig, drizzled olive oil and ghee and yogurt and so on, until after awhile it started smelling amazing. it was the makings of a really good BBQ rub really, with the rice, sage, rosemary, sugar, honey, etc.

there was a lot of chanting, and a transcription plus translation was provided for non-tibetan speakers. i don’t think there was a set rule for which chants to perform, and there were several places where the Lama opted to repeat a section, or insert a short chant. Interspersed throughout the chants were key phrases that were repeated, some only 100 times, others 100 – 1000 times. my guess is the beads help you keep track of the count, though i was thankful for the looping phrases since they were pretty much the only time i could figure out what page we were on.

the repetitions made me think that david foster wallace would have enjoyed this kind of ritual, if he didn’t think it was so weird. the idea fits in with the repetitive benefits of going to AA meetings (“just keep coming”) and how he thought that engaging in acts of “intense tediousness” could help one to be more “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

halfway into it i had the funny feeling that i should’ve turned my cellphone off, and sure enough in the middle of the ceremony someone’s cellphone did go off, but it was the Lama’s son’s phone, who took a break from dumping in some Trader Joe’s creamline yogurt into the fire to answer it with a “Wei?” that seems universal across all the Chinas (from Taiwan to Tibet, and that “big land” inbetween), regardless of political persuasion.

the large glasses of wine and milk were poured on various parts of the backyard, (later i found out you were supposed to aim for living things) the Lama’s son painted two white stripes on the ivy, and one woman doused a couple of chairs with wine by accident, causing everyone to laugh. having been cruelly chastised as a child for laughing during a flub up at some dumb school ceremony i was really thrilled the Lama had such a good sense of humor, not to mention stellar taste in tea.

the really awesome thing is that no matter what religion you subscribe to, burning stuff up is cool. there’s an incredibly cathartic feeling of just watching the flames take over and stuff disappear. if you’ve added nice herbs, beautiful bells and woodsy incense it gets even better. when it was all over we found out that other than the LA Yoga magazine fumes there were also BBQ paint fumes, as the entire outside of the BBQ had started to crack and peel and burn off. nice!

as we were leaving we asked our friend what she was going to do with the ashes, whether they too were purged of the bad mojo and could then go into the garden, or whether it was better to toss it into the trash. she said she’d ask, and get back to us.

in the meantime we’ll just be pondering whether we have just been the “subject” of a purification, or the “object.”