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The Valley of the Kings

April 16, 2012

by Stephen Damon

I just spoke to my daughter who had just returned from a two-week trip to Egypt.  She had stories about Mt. Sinai, the desert, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, and contemporary Egypt, but what impressed me most was her description of her experience inside one of the tombs.  She told me that she had prepared herself to be scared in the darkened depths of ancient burial chambers.  Part of this was due to her reading Coelho’s, The Alchemist, and part of it was due to her ordinary fears around death.  But when she left the sunlit outer walkway, instead of dread, she felt a sense of solace.  How extraordinary!  Yes, it was dark, but not too dark to think that she saw movement in the shadows.  And yes, she was alone.  But she felt a deep acceptance and calmness.

Part of this, I am sure, has to do with her studies of ancient near east history and her long-held wish to visit Egypt, but I think another part of it has to do with the sacred architecture of the ancient stones. This kind of architecture, like the sacred music of Gregorian Chants or Tibetan Chants, is an objective art that is designed to have very specific effects on a person.  So I wonder, what did the ancient stone masons and priests know about death? What did they know about the human psyche? How do I prepare myself to receive their teachings?

This is kind of art that I am calling objective is very different from other kinds of art and music which affect different people in different ways.  G. I. Gurdjieff, a spiritual master and composer once said that he could compose a simple melody that would have the exact same effect on anyone who listened to it. Whenever I enter a sacred place, whether it be a church, synagogue, or a Zendo, I try to take a step back and look at how my mind, emotions and body change.  The architecture of a Gothic Cathedral draws one’s attention out of oneself to something higher while the simple, minimalistic structure of a Zendo brings one back to oneself.  

My Zen group, like many other small groups in America, meets in a small Episcopal Chapel, which, I think, symbolizes the way in which Zen is trying to establish itself in America, synthesizing existing forms of the ancient east and west.  But of course, if you go deeply into any form, east or west,  you will find emptiness. You will find solace and acceptance. 



From → Zen Buddhism

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