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Contemplating the uncontemplatable?

Recently the New York Times “Happy Days” blog ran a piece by Tim Kreider, who was stabbed in the throat fourteen years ago. He writes:

After my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year. . . . I’m not claiming I was continuously euphoric the whole time; it’s just that, during that grace period, nothing much could bother me or get me down. . . . It’s one of the maddening perversities of human psychology that we only notice we’re alive when we’re reminded we’re going to die.


It didn’t last, of course. You can’t feel grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever–or grieve forever, for that matter. . . Before a year had gone by the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. . . Once a year on my stabbiversary I remind myself that this is still my bonus life, a free round. But now that I’m back down in the messy, tedious slog of everyday emotional life, I have to struggle to keep things in what I still insist is their true perspective. I know intellectually that all the urgent, pressing items on our mental lists–taxes, car repairs, our careers, the headlines–are so much idiot noise, and that what matters is spending time with people you love. It’s just hard to bear in mind when the hard drive crashes.


This called to mind for me the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Towards Dharma, by which one reflects on various realities of life: our fortunate circumstances, impermanence and our impending deaths, the workings of cause and effect, and the futility of seeking the sort of  happiness that can’t accommodate these realities. I certainly find these exercises useful. And yet . . . .as Kreider observed, it is interesting how hard it can be to move it beyond the intellectual level.
Maybe that’s where the Bodies Exhibition or the contemporary charnel ground comes in handy. Or the Michael Jackson memorial, for that matter.
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posted July 7, 2009 at 5:45 pm

about 4 years ago, I participated in a formal charnel grounds group meditation at the Bodies exhibit. The three leaders were a Tibetan lama, a Theravadan monk from Staten Island, and a Korean Zen priest. I think Tricyle, the buddhist magazine, may have helped organize it. Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga, NYC, was there too.
Many dozen people filled the exhibit – we were allowed in after hours with a special ticket. We meditated on charnel ground stuff, mainly precious human life.
What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that the bodies in the Bodies exhibit are of very questionable provenance, sold by Chinese so-called medical colleges to a company that flays them, dissects them, plasticizes them, and displays them for immense profit around the world. Articles in the New York Times and elsewhere posit, with some very good detective work, that the bodies are those of executed Chinese political prisoners.
from Wikipedia: “20/20 produced a major report exposing the “secret trade in Chinese bodies.”[11] Claiming that bodies are sold on the black market for $300, the report spawned not only a series of other articles[12][13][14] but also a Congressional inquiry,[15] an investigation by the NY Attorney General,[12] and the resignation of Premier’s CEO Arnie Geller.[16]
Under the settlement agreement with New York City, Premier Exhibitions agreed to post disclaimers stating that they could not independently rule out the possibility that remains of Chinese prisoners were used in the production of the displays.[17]
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo concluded his investigation of Premier, finding “The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China. Despite repeated denials, we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner. Respect for the dead and respect for the public requires that Premier do more than simply assure us that there is no reason for concern. This settlement is a start.”[18]”
I no longer visit or advise others to visit the Bodies exhibit, because I am troubled by the provenance issues. Tho’ it was very anatomically edifying. When I spoke to my meditation instructor about it, he noted the amazing interdependent nature of reality. Yes, executed Chinese prisoners, flayed and plasticized will wake you up.
Charnel grounds are heavy stuff.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 10:28 am

yeah, that’s the big reason i didn’t go. the idea that they used prisoners bodies is revolting.

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posted May 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm

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