By Tan Hwee Hwee
I grew up in Singapore, and when I was young, my parents warned me about spiritual places. By that I mean that they warned me not to go to places haunted by ghosts. In Singapore, there were ghosts everywhere. Murdered lovers dwelled in banana trees. Pontianaks, the Malay called them – blood-sucking women who raged in the bulging fruit, bursting out of the yellow skins at night. As a precaution, my parents placed eight-sided mirrors outside our door to deflect these tormented souls. Once, on the island of Sentosa, one of my classmates woke up with bruises around her neck. Nobody was surprised, as demonic assaults were a phenomenon common to camping trips, like mosquito bites. We knew we were sleeping on a sandy graveyard, for before it became a tourist resort, Sentosa was called ‘Pulau Mati’ – Island of Death – because Japanese soldiers had shot thousands of Chinese rebels and buried them there, under the shore where we slept. In August during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, a gray fog would fill Singapore – the swirling ash from burnt money, food, and ghost BMWs, presents combusted to appease the wandering souls. We were taught not to walk in underground car parks or go to public toilets alone during that month.
However, when I was eighteen, I left to attend university in England, where I was taught firmly to disbelieve in ghosts. I was told that I lived in a post-Enlightenment age, in which all sensible people realised that Satan was but a mythological fantasy of the Middle Ages, a product of superstition.
After I finished school at Oxford, I went to New York City, a resolutely unspiritual place. Unlike in Singapore, my friends there have never encountered ghosts, possibly because New York is so unconducive to spirituality that even demons don’t want to live there.
But for now, I work in New York. There, the skyscrapers block out the light, and at times, I feel trapped in a dark canyon. I wake up each day and immediately go underground into the black belly of the subway. Emerging, I spend most of the day in a gray, windowless cubicle. When I leave work, the night cloaks the city like a funeral shroud, and the only light comes from the billboards, flashing red like cold fire from hell. What depresses me most about the city is its darkness. If you stay too long, you forget what sunlight even looks like. I’m currently plotting my escape from New York, but the difficult question is not really how to get out of the city, but where the hell I would go. One of my fantasies is to take a year off and visit spiritual places. I’d like to go to a monastery in Italy, to live in a stone building surrounded by green vineyards, to walk in the shadows of the cloisters, to sit under the gaze of a white angel and watch the butterflies float around the herb garden.
If I had the time and money, it wouldn’t be difficult to go on such a trip. Nowadays, the spiritual tourist has her pick of package tours. On the Internet, I discover that I can join SafariQuest Spiritual Quest Journeys, a tour group promising to reveal the mystical side of South Africa. According to the brochure, the continents originally split at Knysna in the Cape area of South Africa. Thus at Knysna, we can “re-establish ancient energy links and work on our inner child issues. We will work with the record-keeper stones to release the guardians and energy-keepers of Earth by opening up doorways to other worlds.” The tour also includes a visit to Pilgrim’s Rest, where we can tune into the bio-genetic DNA of Earth’s magnetic field.
But you don’t have to hop on a plane to find a spiritual experience. Even in America there are places where you can get in touch with your spiritual side. For example, at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana you can learn about rhythm exploration, ceremonial dance and drum building. The brochure promised that a Native American chief would teach me how to build my own drum so that I could use it to discover my inner rhythm and connect with the circle of life and the Great Spirit. I was intrigued.
Religious groups have always flocked to the desert and the mountain. Visit Santa Fe, and you’ll find Franciscan missionaries co-existing with Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Sufis. Residents speak lovingly of Santa Fe’s ethereal light, which slices across the brown walls like a razor in the morning and, in the evening, caresses the same walls with a buttery glow. There you can view majestic rock peaks and breathe crisp, sage-scented desert air. Places with both deserts and mountains, like Israel and Salt Lake City, have always become centres of worship. All religions seem to share a belief that natural beauty nourishes the soul.
So what about people like me who spend most of their days cut off from any sort of natural beauty? Living in an unnatural city, will my soul die from overexposure to the synthetic? Sometimes I wonder if Satan had New York in mind when he was designing Hell. Now, those of you who have never been to New York might not realise that it is an island. But it is. And I think that’s pretty strange. When I think island, I think of coconut trees and sun-kissed beaches, but New York is an island with steel banks, bordered by rusty fences and EZPass booths. They say Hades is an island, cold and dark, surrounded by the Acheron, a river of woe that flows through black gorges underground. If Hades is a gloomy subterranean island, then maybe New York is the kingdom of the dead, a smog-miasmic land forested by black lamp posts and empty of birdsong.
Federico Garcia Lorca, in his lecture “Poet in New York,” argues vividly that New York architecture is specifically anti-spiritual:
Willing neither clouds nor glory the edges of the buildings rise to the sky. While gothic edges rise form the hearts of the dead and buried, these ones climb coldly skyward with beauty that has no roots and no yearning, stupidly sure of themselves and utterly unable to conquer or transcend, as does spiritual architecture, the always inferior intentions of the architect. There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers’ battle with the heavens that cover them. Snow, rain, and mist set off, wet, and hide the vast towers, but those towers, hostile to mystery, blind to any sort of play, shear off the rain’s tresses and shine their three thousand swords through the soft swan of the mist.
I ask again, what hope is there for the millions like me who live in unnatural cities? Can we ever know God? Part of me, the part that is foolish, idealistic and ridiculously optimistic, believes yes.
This part of me believes that the true artist is like the Christian mystic and the enlightened Zen master, because all three have attained the ability to reach a higher consciousness by seeing the beauty in the ugliness, the spiritual in the mundane.
Zen Buddhism is about developing the ability to see the Buddha-nature in every present moment. You won’t be able to find the Buddha-nature in Paradise, or a monastery, or a hermitage unless you can find it right here, right now. The first principle of the Mahayana is that all things, no matter how terrible or trivial they might seem on the surface, are part of the Buddha-nature. The Zen master Hakuin writes that “this very earth is the lotus land of purity, and this body is the body of Buddha.”
Christianity, likewise, teaches that the spiritual man can see God in anything and in any place. As Thomas à Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ, “If their hearts were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small or abject, but it reflects the goodness of God.” When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where we should worship, Jesus replied, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
The radical work of Christ was to free us from dependence on a particular place for spiritual nourishment. For with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, every believer became a temple of God.
I think both Zen and Christianity teach that God can be found in any geography. His presence might be more obviously visible in some places than others, but if one develops a vision of faith, one can see God in all things. That’s why I say the artist is like a mystic. The artist can see what others cannot, find significance in the insignificant, and point out the mystery in the mundane. Like preachers and prophets, artists are able to create a giant tree of faith from a mustard seed. The true mark of spiritual maturity is not the ability to see the glory of God in the majestic peaks of a snow-capped mountain. No, the true guru is one who discerns the love of God in the gentle hum of the photocopying machine. Where ordinary humans see only what is vile and boring and ordinary, the artist can see the astonishing, the transcendent. I suppose that’s why a writer like Raymond Carver is so revered. It’s easy to write about the beauty of lakes and canyons, but far more difficult to show the beauty of beer bottles and half-smoked cigarettes.
I struggle with the question: what creates spiritual inspiration? Is it a particular place, or is it our perception of the place? A Zen master once said, “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Are some places more spiritual than others, or is every place the same? If you’ve developed a truly sensitive eye to the sacred and are thus able to see that every place is sacred, then is no place truly sacred? If you’re spiritually insensitive, maybe you can only feel the breath of God when you smell pine-scented mountain air, but if you’ve reached enlightenment like the Zen master, if your vision is as clear and clean as a mirror, then you can see the body of God even in the black exhaust of a U-Haul truck. Is New York like hell to me because it’s a horrible, icky place, or is it hell because my mind is dark and I lack the vision of a true artist-mystic?
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001