Right after his passing, National Geographic posted a beautiful piece by Robert Krulwich about the first time Oliver Sacks saw heaven.I love this story about Oliver Sacks so much and must have re-reading it half a dozen times these past twelve months. Describing Sack's plan to imagine heaven in the perfect shade f blue, Krulwich described it like this:
It was 1964. He was in his kitchen in Topanga Canyon, preparing a cocktail. It wasn’t an ordinary cocktail, being part amphetamine (“for general arousal,” he told me), part marijuana (“for added delirium”), and part LSD (“for hallucinogenic intensity”), and his plan was to gulp, wait … and then command heaven to appear.
How do you imagine heaven?
Oliver Sacks would not be the first person to imagine heaven in a color.
The great painter Giotto had tried to paint heaven in indigo. He worked with a number of powders but hadn’t found the right formula. Oliver imagined it to be an “ecstatic blue,” bluer than the lapis lazuli stone favored by the ancient Egyptians, a blue inspired by the seas of the ancient Paleozoic (“How do you know that?” I asked. “I just do,” he said). He wanted, desperately, to see it.
When the German explorer and Silk Roader Albert von Le Coq was at Kizil as part of his grand travels to "borrow" ancient artifacts in Central Asia (carving frescoes right off the walls in some cases!), he was stunned to come upon cave temples in what was by that time the middle of nowhere with murals of such beauty that he described them to be "the finest in all of Turkestan." These murals were of astounding beauty. And most surprising of all was the blue pigment used in the paintings decorating the cave walls. He would write,
“…the extravagant use of a brilliant blue – the well-known ultramarine which, in the time of Benvenuto Cellini was frequently employed by the Italian painters, and was bought at double its weight in gold."
A color likened to the brilliant blue of the heavens above; as Le Coq explains, this ultramarine pigment was the same blue pigment so beloved by the Renaissance painters. How is it possible, he wondered, that the most expensive blue in the Renaissance painter's palate was also to be found in this remote spot in Central Asia?
It's true that all the ultramarine paint in the world was painstakingly derived from the lapis luzuli rocks mined from one place in northeast Afghanistan. Located not far from Bamiyan; from the Sar-e-sang mine in Afghanistan, donkeys transported the expensive pigment in rough sacks over an ocean of mountain ranges-- East to Central Asia and beyond, and West to Venice and beyond. In Europe, the precious pigment was so expensive that it was worth more than gold, and the legendary painters of the Renaissance were forced to wait till their patrons provided them the pigment before they could apply the heavenly blue to Mary's robes (for by this time the color was symbolic of Mary).
Victoria Finlay, in her book on colors, says in today's money, a pound would cost about $3000.
it is truly heavenly-- just look at the Wilton Diptych-. That is all lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. It is the same color blue that was used at Kizil in what is now Western China and the same color blue that was used in painting the great Buddhist statues that stood over the Bamiyan valley for 1400 years.
I like this imagine very much of Oliver Sacks trying to imagine heaven in this way.
I once heard that the medieval aristocrats of Heian period in Japan would have their servants hold up small pictures of Amida Buddha (阿弥陀) at the time their death. These pictures, known as raigō (阿弥陀来迎図 "welcoming approach") depicted the Amida Buddha descending from heaven on a cloud to welcome the dying doul into the Pure Land. The pictures I have seen show the Amida accompanied by attendants floating down from heaven on these wonderfully Tibetan style "purple" clouds~~ floating across beautiful Japanese landscapes. The detail at the top is from a painting kept at the fabulous Chioin Temple in Kyoto, called Raigo of Amida and Twenty-five Attendants. It depicts an Amida in "rapid Descent" with twenty-five attendants arriving t welcome the dead person in his home. It is a registered National Treasure.
What a wonderful way to die, right? To pass away while comforted by beautiful painting held up in front of your eyes.
About twenty years ago, I was in Bali and had the chance to meet the explorer and filmmaker Lorne Blair. He was in the process of building a beautiful house with a huge pitched roof in a village outside Ubud. Made entirely of tropical wood, it had a fabulous veranda overlooking a beautiful garden. The interior was open and airy and everywhere there was art he had brought back from his travels to remote places. In that half-built house, we sat and spoke of funerals the entire time.
We both had recently returned to Bali after visiting the wondrous island of Sulawesi, where the people of the highlands are known for their incredibly elaborate funeral rituals. In Tana Toraja people repeat the phrase that "dying is the biggest event in a person's life." Having just lost my own father, I was deeply touched by the way the people there mourned the dead-- sending their deceased loved ones off with quite an extended party (I was told that funerals were by far the greatest expense during a person's life). When a loved one dies, the body is kept first in a room in the great house. If they can gather the necessary funds quickly enough the funeral happens within a year but if it takes longer, they might temporarily bury the body under the house. In fact, many traditional cultures have this concept of a two-phase funeral. The Japanese too in ancient times believed that the souls of the dead resided very close by until gradually fading into the spirit of the trees or mountains.
That thought of the dead being somehow very close in proximity to the living is as old as the mountains. We forget this since all the major world religions posit a heaven that is in a separate realm-- and while Buddhists, Muslims and Christians may entertain the thought of purgatory (or a day of judgement) in general the dead make a hasty trip to paradise after death. Scholar Eiji Hattori wrote that at least in three cases that he knows of-- that is in ancient Japan, the Torajans and on the island of Madagascar there is this two-tiered funeral custom.
It is during the first preliminary funeral that the Torajan effigies are made. Called Tao-tao, they are effigies thought to embody the soul of the dead person.When the the second funeral is feasible (this is single the largest expenditure a family undertakes and sometimes it can take several years to raise the funds), several temporary structures are erected to house the guests and animals for slaughter. As the funeral lasts around 5 days, the family not only has to pay for the ceremony itself but has to feed and house the hundreds of guests for the entire time.
Coming from the scant funeral and mourning customs of where I came from, this was all eye-opening. And Blaire agreed with me that in fact remembering the dead is a form of deep reverence for life itself. To mark a life lived and to give voice to the great sadness of those left behind must be one of the most basic human instincts of all.. we discussed the ancient Persian towers of silence-- and of course about the Torajan funeral customs as well. Robert Harrison, author of Dominion of the Dead, says that he thinks it is in the mourning of the dead (and the disposal of our human remains) that most distinguish us as a species. I would say that it is in our story-telling and meaning-making capacity in which our humanity is most clearly evoked. But I agree with him that the dead do not belong to themselves as much as they belong to the community of loved ones that mourn them and that, indeed, this act of communal mourning is perhaps the greatest celebration of life.
Not long after I met Blair, I learned he had fallen down a manhole in Ubud and died from complications. The village he lived in-- along with his family-- organized an elaborate Balinese funeral to which the entire village turned out for. When I heard about it, I thought how much he would have liked that. Likewise, I think Oliver Sacks would love the way his friends have mourned him in the form of these beautiful reminiscences... of great conversations bicycling around Riverside Park talking of plants or of the project of finding heaven in a color...