Buddha and the Moon

The Buddha, some of the goddesses of compassion, Kanon, Kuan Yin and the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara have been associated with the Moon, and moonlight with shining mercy. As such, the Moon has been considered a friend by many writers throughout the ages.

Chiyo-ni,  Izumi Shikibu, and Ono No Komachi remembered the Moon in their death poems:

This abandoned house
in the mountain village-
how many nights
has the autumn moon spent here?

Crossing dark mountains,
Keep me company a bit
longer, Friendly Moon.

Clear water is cool
fireflies vanish-
there’s nothing more

I also saw the moon
and so I say goodbye
to this world.

Perhaps, if I make a friend
of the mountain cuckoo
in this world,
he will talk with me
when we cross the mountain of death.

The way I must enter
leads through darkness to darkness-
O moon over the mountain’s rim,
please shine a little further
on my path.

To those lovely three Chakor birds I wish (the moonlight-eating Chakor bird gazes all night at the moon, according to Kabir) the blessings contained in these verses by Buddhakara, from around the same time period, about the bodhisattva Lokeshvara, taken from Vidyakara’s Subhasitaratnakosa:

May that great saint, his body formed of moonlight,
dispel your grief and grant you
the streaming nectar of his peaceful happiness.

May the face of the World Savior bless your days,
to which the goodly lotus
went laughing, surely, without fear of the nightly orb,
for it inferred this face was not the lunar disc nor this purity white moonlight nor these dark eyes
a double mark of splendor on the moon.

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Anatole France and the Yogi who tried to cheat death

Pride is a theme that has interested writers, and readers, for many centuries.

Anatole France, criticizing some misogynistic novel by Alexandre Dumas, wrote (On Life And Letters, page 20) ‘intelligence is proud and takes pleasure in disputes. Religions speak to our feelings, that is why they bring the believers together: we all feel almost alike’.

A classical Indian tale tells us about a very powerful yogi, who mastered all the esoteric arts, and who decided to use his secret knowledge to cheat death. When the yogi’s time had come, an emissary from death visited him and the yogi fooled the lackey by multiplying himself into hundreds of simulacra. As more and more powerful minions came to fetch the yogi into the kingdom of death, he kept multiplying the number of simulacra, until eventually death herself came looking for him. At that point, the yogi used the utmost of his powers, he multiplied himself into billions of copies. Death expressed admiration: ‘that’s a great trick, indeed, sadly, it has one small flaw’. ‘What flaw?’, the yogi asked angrily. And that’s when Death grabbed him and snatched him away.

Returning to good ole Anatole, in that same essay he compares righteousness with mercy. ‘The heroic victim of Sextus, the chaste Lucretia, practiced virtue as if were a magistracy. She killed herself for an example: Ne ulla deinde impudica Lucretice exemplo vivet (To prevent lustful women in the future from going on living in their shame using Lucretia as an excuse).’ Monsieur France contrasts this with ‘clemency, the most intelligent of virtues’, as expressed in the 13th strophe of the Dies irae: ‘You the sinful woman saved; You the dying thief forgave; and to even me, hope promised’.

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Philip Levine and Annamacharya (AKA Annamayya)

I think it may be interesting to contrast two poems on the human condition. One profane, the other sacred. One by a good social poet, recently deceased, and the other, by a poet so extraordinary, he dared to make fun of his contemporary genius poet, the basket weaver Kabir (‘So you want to be poets, you idiots? Try basket weaving.’)

You Can Have It
By Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Natiki nade na caduvu

by Annamayya

If you get rid of poverty, you’re stuck with riches.
You’ll never have time to think of God.
There’s always a zillion things to do.
Life whips you, like a bonded slave,
this play of shadows on the screen.
If you say no to the bad things, you are bound by the good.
You’ll never have time to think of God.
Life seeps in, like water under the carpet,
If you won’t work for wages, it’ll take work for nothing.
Say you can’t bear it: it won’t let you go,
this play of shadows on the screen.
You’re tired all day, and at night sleep takes over.
You’ll never have time to think of god.
When the god on the hill stands before you,
you’ll know: Life is nothing but show,
this play of shadows on the screen.

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Tagore and Me

Since I’m on a Tagore mood, one more post about him.

When I was very young and had just returned from a ‘spiritual exercises retreat’ at a Jesuit monastery I had a dream about Tagore. If I recall it right, there was a poster with some poem from Tagore pasted to a wall at the monastery and that may have triggered the dream. During the dream Tagore gave me a poem to remember our meeting:
    “Since the beginning, I’ve loved your light,
    it has been my guide in the stormy seas of life,
    but if one night you extinguish your lamp,
    I’ll learn to love your silence”.

A couple decades later I came upon the source of the poem from my dream while reading through a collection of Tagore’s verse:

    “Put out the lamp when thou wishest,
     I shall know thy darkness, and shall love it”.


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Coincidences in literature are rather rare. Coincidences in literature across cultures are even rarer. So you can guess my surprise when reading Tagore’s “The question” from his Lipika collection of the 1920’s I found the following lines:

The father returned from the crematory.
The boy of seven – his body bare, a gold amulet round his    neck -was alone by the window above the lane.
He was unaware of his own thoughts. (…)
A man selling green mangoes came to the lane, called several times, then went away.

The reason for my surprise came because many years ago my Latin American literature professor had taught me how extraordinary was the line:
A man selling green plantains and eggs walked down the street.
(Y paso un hombre vendiendo huevos y platanos).

That line came from Domingo Moreno Jimenes (an early 20th century caribbean poet) most famous poem: Poema de la hija reintegrada (Poem of the reinstated daughter, 1934) The poem’s subject is the death of his daughter, Maria. The poem includes Tagorean lines like:

Tu infancia y tu silencio me parecen hermanos.
(Your childhood and your silence strike me as siblings).

Hija mía, para ti la mañana no será clara ni fresca;
verás envuelta el alba en la noche,
y las cosas de mayor transparencia
tomarán ante tus ojos la actitud de un largo crepúsculo.

(My daughter, for you the morning will no longer be light and fresh;
you’ll see the dawn covered by the night’s darkness,
and even the most transparent things
will seem to your eyes like sunlessness without end).

Hija, resígnate a que lo blanco no sea blanco
y a que lo negro no sea negro.
(Daughter, accept that white things will no longer be white,
and black ones, no longer black).

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FrankenFran vs Hermelinda Linda

The old Mexican comic from the seventies and the recently finished Japanese manga share more than the alliteration in the name of the main characters: they share a kind of humor that is almost unique to them.

First some background info.  Hermelinda Linda was a comic published between the early seventies and late eighties in Mexico by Editormex based on characters created by Oscar González Guerrero , José Cabezas and Fausto Buendía, about a witch from the Bondojito slums neighborhood. Hermelinda would perform black magic spells and prepare potions and cast hexes for anyone with the money to pay for them, although the results were not always what her customers expected. Full of black humor , macabre mischief,  beautiful women and innuendo jokes, the “witchcraft jobs” performed by Hermelinda for her customers almost always had something to do with some of the Deadly Sins (from wikipedia).


Franken Fran (フランケン・ふらん Furanken Furan?) is a comedy horror manga series by Katsuhisa Kigitsu. It began serialization in Champion Red magazine in September 2006 and is now completed. Fran is a girl created by Dr. Naomitsu Madaraki, the world’s top biologist and former war criminal (some medical experiments conducted on human beings). Fran was originally intended to be his assistant, but she has overtaken his work and home while he is away. Her work consist of odd medical procedures ranging from resurrection to aesthetic surgery to cloning of human beings. There is a fair amount of black humor, nearly each story ending with Fran having created some sort of gruesome monstrosity or misfortune at the expense of her patients (sorry… no refunds), specially a certain very unlucky policewoman.




There’s a lot of common themes between the 2 series: the clones/cuijes zombies, the foolish/selfish/sinful request and motives of the customers, the light sexual situations, the seemingly nice but actually nasty amoral nature of Hermelinda and Fran and the horrible ends that await those who deal with them.

However the biggest common thread is the particular sense of humor that flavors both comic book series.  It’s a cruel and dark humor based upon comeuppance for those foolish enough or sinful enough to dare and do a deal with the demon-light entities Hermelinda and Fran.

Don’t get me wrong, both Hermelinda and Fran are deadly funny and oddly gripping reads, but what sets them apart from other similar comic books is the way that they retell the Faust legend where a foolish/greedy human being deals with the devil and gets his or her comeuppance at the end. This theme lends itself to endless variations (other decidedly not funny examples of this theme and variations include the entire run of the Japanese manga Hell Girl or many of the Tales from the Crypt episodes).

This dark and justice based kind of humor was a shocking experience to me when I first encountered these two series and I cannot recommend that flavor of comedy enough to those adventurous and not easily disgusted readers out there. Because there is plenty of gore in them, but there is also a warning in them that might be helpful in a future where our Faustian bargain with nuclear power and cheap oil brings our comeuppance in the form of many more Fukushima-like incidents and deep sea oil spills.


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