Shoah: A Table of Elements
by Dov Abramson, guest contributor
“The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.”
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.
“Shoah: A Table of Elements” describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.
“Shoah: A Table of Elements” is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.
Dov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me
by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor
An image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
Let Us Draw Fear and Solace from Certainty and Permit History to Surprise Us
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ll confess here (as I didn’t do in the public event that became this week’s show) that I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the 9/11 remembrance. Part of me hesitates to add to what will be a media deluge by Sunday. On the other hand, so much of that coverage is about reliving and revisiting; I’m longing to make some new kind of sense, to bring some new reflection to our common grappling.
We framed this public conversation at St. Paul’s Chapel on the edge of Ground Zero with a phrase I’ve used once or twice across the years: “remembering forward.” This is a play on my favorite line from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
And on Tuesday night, September 6th, remembering forward did take us to different places than I recall in my own September 11 deliberations up to now. We began by dwelling with the sense of vulnerability that was at the heart of that terrible day ten years ago — a catastrophic reminder of mortality and frailty even in our strongest fortresses. New Yorkers and Americans experienced a magnitude of “grief and dread” — Hendrik Hertzberg’s evocative words — that were disorientingly new.
I expected to be surprised, being in conversation with such an eclectic gathering of insightful thinkers — The New Yorker’s Hertzberg, writer and thinker Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones — but I didn’t expect the word “hope” to resonate so loudly. It emerged as an intriguing, bittersweet theme.
For in pondering the strange and universal experience of vulnerability, we dwelt less on what was done to us and more about the work of living with the reality of that. We focused on the enduring, inward work of trauma that accompanied and followed that day ten years ago. As Serene Jones reminded us, when grief becomes mourning it encompasses a vision of wholeness.
On Tuesday night, we mourned not only for the tragedy but for the gift of those immediate post-9/11 days: the unprecedented solidarity that they called forth among strangers and fellow New Yorkers, between New York and the rest of America, between America and the rest of the world. And in this chapel, which is the symbol and practical heart of that ennobling moment of solidarity, we named questions, which themselves have power to create new realities in this coming decade. Did we really take in the extraordinary compassion the rest of the world extended to us in our moment of crisis? Is it too late to learn to extend that to each other and the world anew in more generous, more intentional ways?
My hope right now is rooted in a quiet, growing sense that, slowly, after many twists and turns, we might be settling into a more helpful realization of the limits of our understanding — and that this can open us to a new range of new possibilities and actions. We are more aware of our global interconnectedness this decade on. We are better equipped to understand that our dramatic moment of fear and grieving, of weakness in our strongest fortresses, is an experience many people across the world live with much of the time. We’ve realized that the Arab world we suddenly saw as full of enemies was also full of human beings who want the same dignity and democracy as us. The economic roller coaster of recent years has also reminded us of the perplexing reality that the only constant in life is change.
All these features of the decade since 9/11 have driven home its lesson of vulnerability. But they also drive home the lesson that there is both fear and solace to be drawn from the certainty that life and history will surprise us. Within that certainty, as Pankaj Mishra said so helpfully on Tuesday night, hope remains renewable. This was palpable at St. Paul’s Chapel that evening, making no sense at all and all the sense in the world.
The God Who Fits Our Agenda: 9/11 Then and Now
by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor
Photo by Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Most of us remember that day and what we were doing around nine o’clock that morning. (I was at the veterinarian’s office; we had just gotten a puppy the Saturday before).
September 11, 2011 is a Sunday. For those of us who will be in church that morning — in the pulpit or the pew — there’s an expectation that something important must be said; that appropriate ritual solemnity must be observed; that meaning, in some form or fashion, must be made.
It’s just bad, calendrical luck that the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks falls on a Sunday. Tuesdays are made for the busyness of school and work, for picking up the dry cleaning, and taking the dog to the vet. Sundays seem to call for ceremony and somber speechifying. Most pastors and preachers, I suspect, won’t be able to resist the urge.
But what is left to say? Haven’t we done too much talking and not enough listening these last ten years? And haven’t Christians of all stripes spoken too hastily about the events of September 11? Haven’t we summoned pious God-talk for our own well-intended purposes, sputtering and stuttering dubious theological explanations for an inexplicable tragedy?
In his beautiful book, Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Rowan Williams suggests that “when we try to make God useful in crises, we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda.” It’s discomfiting to realize in the immediate and long-term aftermaths of tragedies like 9/11, that “we might be committed to a God who can seem useless in a crisis,” Archbishop Williams writes. Certainly this wasn’t the god invoked after the fall of the twin towers when our leaders summoned the “wonder working power” of a deity whom we simply assumed would sanction our “crusade” against global terrorism.
But we worship, in fact, this Sunday and every Sunday, a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew, “only the suffering God can help.” The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. Try putting that one on the churchyard sign sometime.
When we set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we notice that the 9/11-inspired “remember and never forget” meets up with Jesus’ outrageous admonition to forgive ad infinitum those who sin against us.
The secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans — the lopsided value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As anthropologist Talal Asad perceptively puts it, “human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples” and “this is necessary to a hierarchical global order.”
So the “important” word we wait to hear this Sunday is one that should be routine in our hearing and our living: the suffering God of the cross gathers us, greets us, and sends us out to love and forgive our enemies. What we “remember and never forget” is the commemorative meal in which he feeds us at a table of gracious plenty. On a Tuesday or a Sunday or any day of the week, this is who we are: a people turned by the eucharistic table into friends of God and neighbors to all.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page
Understanding Happiness with the Dalai Lama, a British Rabbi, an Episcopal Bishop, a Muslim Scholar: A Twitterscript
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
On October 17 of this year, Krista led a lively conversation with four dynamic religious leaders: the His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr on “Understanding and Promoting Happiness in Today’s Society.”
Trent and I sat in the media section of the Woodruff Physical Education Center at Emory University and our live-tweeted some of the special gems from discussion. You can also listen to the event’s full audio.
- We’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s panel w/ @, @RabbiSacks, Rev. Schori, + Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Intros are beginning; discussion to start soon.
- Krista and religious leaders have taken the stage, followed by the @DalaiLama. All are standing in silence with one pair of hands clapping.
- The topic of this session: understanding and promoting happiness in today’s society. Smiles everyone!
- “The reason different religious traditions developed is not for misery but for deep satisfaction (happiness). That’s very clear.”-@DalaiLama
- The @DalaiLama finally put on his classic deep red visor. He said to Krista - “Now I can see you clearer. There is a bright light in here.”
- “If we could learn 1 thing from you - how to laugh the way you do - it would increase the happiness in the world.” @rabbisacks to @dalailama
- “Simha tells us that happiness is part of the tenure and texture of relationships.” @rabbisacks on Jewish definition of a shared happiness
- “Consumerism making us feel bad for what we lack is the most efficient system for the manufacturing+distribution of unhappiness” @rabbisacks
- “The paradox of the world is that to listen to a lecture on #happiness people have to stand in line unhappily for 2 hours to get in.” -Nasr
- “#Happiness comes from this right relationship - from knowing you are not God and therefore not putting yourself in the center.” -Rev Schori
- Some people have the idea that just following the truth is enough. #Islambelieves what’s important is to attain #happiness.”-Seyyed H. Nasr
- “The environmental crisis is due to this substitution - believing #happiness is to have, want more and more.” - Seyyed Hossein Nasr
- “Once it was asked to a great #Sufi master ‘What do you want?’ He said ‘I want not to want?’ That’s the epitome of #happiness.” -Seyyed Nasr
- “Happiness is a permanent state of the soul, and we are here to attain it.” -Seyyed H. Nasr to the @DalaiLama
- “That’s why all the pain can lead to #happiness when you say to the bad times: I will not let you go until you bless me.” - @rabbisacks
- “Happiness is not finding joy in death. It’s taking what is, and insisting that great happiness for all is possible.” - Rev. Schori
- RT @EmoryUniversity ”Say to the bad times, I will not let you go until you bless me.”—-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
- “In Arabic, beauty and virtue — and the word goodness — are all the same word.” -Seyyed H. Nasr
- “The #Arabic word for beauty, virtue, and goodness is the same. Beauty drives us to the divine…Beauty makes the soul happy.” - Seyyed Nasr
- “Just by existing, we’re responsible towards other creatures, humans, nature, and God himself.” -Seyyed Hossein Nasr
- “Buddhism is in some ways atheist, but some say atheism means anti-God. In that sense, #Buddhism has respect for all traditions.” @DalaiLama
- “Sometimes we don’t have to pursue happiness, we have to pause and let it catch up to us.” - @rabbisacks
- “There is a religious challenge in things that don’t look beautiful.” -@RabbiSacks
- “Happiness is a right. The purpose of our life is happiness. It may be simple but it’s what I think!” @DalaiLama
- “When a person lives with hopelessness, they commit suicide. So our life depends on hope for happiness.” @DalaiLama
- A nice segue by Krista from @RabbiSacks’ fabulous point about slowing down for happiness to the @DalaiLama’s teachings on meditation.
- “I almost drowned on my honeymoon, so when I wake up, I know what it means to pray: Thank you #God for giving me back my life.” @RabbiSacks
- “We can face the future of fear if we know we do not face it alone.” @RabbiSackson praying to #God and knowing God is with you
- Just realized there’s a person signing this wonderful discussion at Emory. Her just to hear + translate must be incredibly difficult. Kudos.
- “Our modern culture makes it very hard to fail.” -@RabbiSacks at The Interfaith Summit on Happiness
- “Train the body so the mind, the self, and the soul can do it’s job more effectively.” - Rev. Schori on #running as body meditation
- “ #Judaism has a whole approach on the physical dimension of the spiritual life - it’s called food.” @RabbiSacks on #happiness and the body
- “If you want a summary of all the #Jewish holidays it can be done in 3 sentences: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” @RabbiSacks
- “Someone elses’ material needs, are my spiritual duty” @RabbiSacks on the responsibility to help others who are lacking
- @DalaiLama is asked: Where does body fit into happiness? HHDL: Without a body, there’s no longer a brain. Then it’s difficult to think.
- “You have to let go of hate if you want to be free” - @RabbiSacks
- “A #Muslim friend said ‘jihad’ is combating the negative forces within yourself. So then, the whole Buddhist philosophy is Jihad” @DalaiLama
- “After Buddhism there is no religion that speaks more of compassion than #Islamdoes.” - Seyyed Hossein Nasr
- “I’m out of my medium. I’m used to being in a recording studio where people aren’t applauding after comments” - Krista Tippett
The Great Bell Chant: A Meditation
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This video is a compassion meditation of sorts, featuring the words and voice of one of our most enduring guests, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I wonder if this short film can’t serve as a sort of loosely guided meditation in its own right. If you have several minutes, use this video as a guided meditation. After you’re finished, reflect on your experience and comment on these questions:
- How did the sound of the bell and the words of Thich Nhat Hanh help you in focusing your attention?
- In what ways did the cinematography of sweeping, aerial vistas and intimate portraits aid you in your focus of nature and fellow people?
- Did you find that Phap Niem’s fluid chanting helped you in letting go and being more aware of the compassion inside you?
- How did/didn’t the combination of visuals and audio help guide you in this exercise? Did you find them more distracting then helpful?
And, if you’re looking for a more aural focus, try this four-part bell meditation with Arthur Zajonc.
Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our life.