Monday, February 28, 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

The Senso-ji in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo is one of the city's few sights still recognizable from the mid-nineteenth century--albeit by way of a reconstruction from the 1960's. The southern gate, Kaminarimon, in which hangs the largest--and most celebrated--paper lantern in Japan, leads to an avenue of shops whose ramrod-straight perspective lines call Hiroshige's masterpiece woodcuts immediately to mind. Another gate at the promenade's north end opens onto the temple forecourt.

On the Sunday of the Tokyo Marathon, the compound teems with devotees and sightseers, the distinctions between them blurring in a way they haven't for many generations in the great churches of Europe; or maybe, more accurately, people are simply more animated and having more fun. For an offering of 100 yen, you can shake a numbered stick out of a metal cylinder while you pray your petition, then open a corresponding wooden drawer and retrieve a prediction of the outcome. I'm glad I wasn't praying very earnestly or for anything of real import, because I drew Number 74: "Your request will not be granted. The sick patient is hopeless. The lost article will not be found. The person you wait for will not come. Building a new home and removal are both bad. Marriage of any kind, to start a new trip and new employment are all bad." (Clearly, I might as well have been praying for social democracy in America.)

The Senso-ji is a Buddhist shrine to Kannon. Her tiny golden statue was miraculously fished from the nearby Sumida River in the seventh century. Set back to the right of the main temple stands a Shinto shrine commemorating the discovery. A fountain offers purification for devotees of both holy places: ladle the limpid water over your left hand, then over your right, then rinse your mouth and spit into the sluice below the great basin.

Centered in the forecourt below the temple steps stands a great roofed incense burner of cast bronze. Visitors fan the smoke toward their faces and over their heads and shoulders. A devout man holds up his bundle of incense sticks, bowing to the four directions before adding them to the plethora already offered. Smoke partially obscures the faces of those leaning in from the far side. Less piously--but who can tell?--another man takes a photo of his girlfriend as she stands with one hand on the rim facing his camera.

Atop the temple steps, worshippers fling coins from three or four yards back, sometimes over the heads of those standing further forward, into the slat-topped coffer set before the inner sanctuary, then raise their hands palm to palm in reverence.

Repair to the Yagoda Hall west of the main temple and you can commission a calligrapher to commemorate the date of your visit in an accordian-fold book you've brought with you; or can buy a book at the stall for the purpose.

At the far west side of the precinct you can graze on street food for lunch--grilled squid balls, or a rice-gluten cake topped with seaweed and glazed in tamari, or a flattened dumpling of sweet red bean paste deep-fried at a cart parked in front of a plum tree flowering riotously on a bright afternoon at the end of February.

Everywhere you turn, piety shades into fun, and fun into piety, while Western Christianity mostly lost track of such gradations five centuries ago. Creeds intermingle between Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple in ways unthinkable to most monotheists. Kannon herself not only offers an image of the feminine Divine, but in the historical progress of her cult opens the door to the transsexual Divine. Often referred to as the Goddess of Mercy, she is more properly the Boddhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara according to his Sanskrit origins, who in descending the Himalayas into China with the spread of Buddhism underwent an MTF sex change to become Kwan-Yin. She is Ocean of Wisdom and Mother of all who pass through these precincts, whether in laughter, curiosity, hope, or prayer.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Tin Hau is an out-of-the way neighbourhood of Hong Kong--which is to say, it's no more frenetic than the Lower East Side of Manhattan. To the south of the subway line along the main east-west axis of the city, a tight rectangular street grid a few blocks wide frames impossibly narrow buildings of three or four apartments per floor, but jutting up seven or eight stories, their street-level fronts a mix of the auto-repair shops that once dominated but now yield place month by month to trendy restaurants and shops.

Tucked at the bend of a dog-leg side street behind two of the remaining repair shops, the Lin Fa Kung Temple rests against the base of a precipitous hillside. The living rock of the slope protrudes into the temple's interior. The inner sanctuary rises to a second level, following the face of the hill, accessible by stairs from either side of the lower shrine. At 7:30 in the morning, an elderly woman bustles from Buddha to Buddha, then back again to the table where she's laid out her supply of incense sticks, distributing them eventually to the various sand-filled bowls waiting to receive them. A young man with a backpack stands before the central altar on the entrance level, bows three times, then leaves to start his day.

I keep a little to one side, dependent on the kindness of strangers to accept my presence, conspicuous and naive as I am, trying to notice everything.

I head on down the street to the dim sum shop, which has spilled a dozen customers out onto the sidewalk, find a seat at a table with two strangers. I order tea and a few of the staple items I know by their Chinese names--deftly avoiding the chicken feet.

The place is glaringly lit by compact florescent potlights. The neon lime green of the formica tables matches the walls. Mounted high on the back wall is a rosewood-stained wooden shrine to a polychrome porcelain Taoist god I don't recognize, his stern expression reenforced by the two forefingers of his left hand raised in admonition--admonition to what I have no idea, but I suspect protecting his devotees by warding off unseen dangers. No-nonsense bolts visibly screwed through the shrine's back panel secure it to the wall. Below it on the floor sits another shrine in which a four-by-five grid of twenty characters printed in gold on red hang in lieu of an image. Offferings of oranges, incense, and cakes rest before the inscription. The floor-level shrine is abutted on one side by the beer cooler, on the other by a serving cart of dirty dishes. On the top sits a supply of styrofoam carry-out containers along with extra incense and more oranges in a plastic grocery bag.

Returning to the temple the next morning, I stop at the corner shop across the street, stand in line for a bundle of incense sticks, and hand the shopkeeper a HK$100 note, having no idea how much I owe. She smiles, holding up two fingers. I hand her a second $100. Shaking her head and still smiling, she hands it back and makes change, taking the 20. I owe her.

I don't even know what sect Lin Fa Kung belongs to, and half the iconography is lost on me. Upstairs, to the right of the principal altar, a wall of Buddhas sit rank and file in meditation. A conical reliquary revolves slowly, mirrors flashing above tiny niches housing further Enlightened Ones.

I make a mess of it, lighting the whole bundle, as I'd seen one worshipper do the day before. It doesn't occur to me until too late that now I have to distribute the lighted sticks among the altars. Bowing with the incense in hand, I take a blinding wallop of smoke in the face two or three times in my circuit of the altars, but no one stares; everyone is kind in their understated tolerance.

Tomorrow, I'll come a little closer to getting it right, like an eager child refusing to be intimidated by initial failure. I could instead just stay in my hotel room and do a lap around the rosary I've shlepped with me from Canada, sticking to what I know. But I'm here, just as I am, to walk a jet-lagged new path strewn with banana peels, an ignorant, well-intentioned clown eight thousand miles from home.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Liminal This, Liminal That

It’s hard to hang out for long in any crowd draped in the fashions of post-modern or queer theory without picking up “liminality” as staple buzzword. What’s on the threshold between states of being gets a more or less immediate vote of approval by the very fact that it doesn’t fit one category or the other–that it queers the stable options and shakes the boxes that people and their experiences get put into.

But if you push beyond the sometimes sloppy generalities to an important source of the word’s popularity, you arrive at the anthropological theories of Victor Turner. From Turner, you get a different perspective on liminality, one with more positive content, with more meat on its bones.

Turner’s view of liminality embraces more than the simple fact of not fitting in. It’s about experiences, especially experiences of ritual, that suspend the clearly defined social structures of everyday life. Hovering between one state and another, outside of ordinary social categories, strips away the distinctions that normally define (and limit) individual identities. It enhances the bond between members of the ritual group and creates among them what Turner calls communitas.

The Latin word simply means community, but Turner uses it to emphasize that this experience isn’t about the structures that usually keep people in their pre-determined place or restrict them to the choices they’ve already made about their lives. Communitas unites the ritual group around a radical encounter with a deeper truth of our Being revealed when ordinary trappings of status and routine are stripped away.

Communitas is the experience of the innumerable faithful circling the Ka’aba in Mecca during the Hajj, which Malcolm X said transformed his understanding of the possibility of connection across lines of race, class, and nationality. It’s the experience of deep fellowship described by walkers on the route to the shrine of St. James at Compostela, cutting across lines of sectarian belief, age, and language in the decades since the medieval pilgrimage route was revived in the 1970's.

And here’s where the penny really dropped for me: it’s also about the distinction between ordinary eros and sacramentalized eros. Turner’s ideas about liminality and communitas help me make sense out of the intense transpersonal bonds that we’re capable of forming in erotic contexts where a focus on predictable individual identities aren’t key to the interaction’s quality. Turner provides insight, for example, into the final, redemptively celebratory scene of John Stuart Cameron’s wonderful romp of a film, Shortbus, set in and around a New York sex club; out of the deep, albeit sometimes ephemeral connections and insights that men experience at retreats offered by the Body Electric School; out of some men’s focused and articulate commitment to BDSM practices and culture; out of the reflection of some queer men (Armistead Maupin among them) that they’ve never felt closer to God than they felt in bathhouses in the 1970's.

The energy of the liminal state–in ritual, in erotic life–is not an unmitigated good. Its power is life-giving; and it’s dangerous. Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies also forged liminal communitas of a sort. The hucksterism of the religious right draws much of its power from the liminality it manipulates in the service of homophobia, misogyny, and class oppression. And the rush of liminal experience can become a drug of sorts, drawing us, if we’re not mindful and grounded, into a pattern of “chasing the dragon,” like the addict who goes on endlessly hoping that the intensity of his first high will be repeated with the next hit. Distorted into a fixture of our daily lives, the liminal recedes endlessly into the distance. Ironically, and sometimes tragically, the more obsessively we try to assure ourselves of access to its power and energy, the more we risk trivializing our search for something precious and unpredictable into a search for cheap thrills.

The liminal exists in balance with the fact that ordinary life goes on. We always return from liminal experiences: to daily lives that often look much as they did before; to jobs that depend on our qualifications and our personal connections; to friendships and primary relationships founded on the specifics of our individual personalities; in short, to life options shaped and limited by the sum of all the choices we’ve made so far. The liminal can reshape our relation to our ordinary lives, but it can only manifest itself in tension with the ordinary. We get into trouble when we imagine that we can make the liminal into “the new normal”; but when we welcome it as an unpredictable guest, we meet extraordinary moments that have the power to change the way we inhabit our skins and walk in them through the world.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Waiting on Troubled Waters: A Queer Midrash on John 5

Here you lie, with all the other walking wounded, in the portico of the pool called Bethesda, hoping for a wholeness that never arrives. You’ve given up on the miracle cure. The wounds your soul sustained that distant summer of your fourteenth year, when the longings of your heart found new voice in your flesh, have remained open too long.

Desire blossomed into shame that has gone on bearing strange and bitter fruit down all the years since. In broken relationships. In hopeless love for the wrong men. In the anger you’ve used to mask your pain. In the constant, compulsive attention to the needs of others that has so effectively obscured your own. In the loneliness that’s come of obscuring them so well.

The waters of Bethesda will cure you, if you reach them first among the crowd, just as the angel comes down to skim the pool with his outstretched foot, its surface troubled by the wind from huge wings rowing in place. You’ve come so close, sometimes moving forward timidly, sometimes dashing up in a panic before it’s too late. You wait for the next time, but you’ve given up thinking your turn will ever come. Now you want to be rid of the desire for healing as much as you want healing itself.

A man lies next to you in the portico, waiting as well. The joy and gentleness in his eyes drew you in as soon as he sank down against the wall beside you. In the quiet warmth of his smile glows a wistfulness that speaks of yearning as deep as your own. For better or worse this sadness also attracts you. To hear him speak of his own longings makes you feel more alive–and that’s part of your wound as well: that you see yourself reflected in him better than you see yourself; and yet don’t see him as clearly as you could if your own reflection didn’t get in the way. But it’s all the comfort you have, and you bless God for its consolation, even as you long to see face to face, not obscurely as through a smoky mirror.

You glimpse out of the corner of your eye before anyone else has looked up the flash of white moving above you, and suddenly you know what you have to do. You lean forward to plant a kiss on your companion’s forehead, and for a split second his eyes are deeper than the pool. Reaching your arm around him, you gather up all the strength you’ve got to hurl him into the water, before someone beats him to it.

But he’s too strong for you. The sinews erupting from his shoulder-blade defy your hold. Locked in his embrace, you both roll towards the pool amidst the sound of beating wings. Your erections collide momentarily before you fall into the water. When you come up sputtering, his face is turned down towards you from where he floats stationary, his foot grazing the surface as he churns the air.