200 mystics, equipped with fabric for shielding skin against dirt and nothing else, reclined in pits they dug themselves. They waited for men to cover their bodies, Allah to lend access to His portal between worlds. If they were worthy, they would be granted miracles where they lay.
Needless to say miracles don’t happen to everyone. Of the sages who volunteered for this 40-day burial, this must have been understood.
Spiritual trials captivated Java since before recorded history. Occult rituals still happen, varied in extremity and magnitude, though broadcasts of these happenings seldom leak because they raise a fuss among the “real Muslims” who bow and hum to the wagging of the Middle East.
Ancestry runs steeper than law. God knows the ancients still hold sway where the higher power takes root, and it would do us well to pay attention. We should inherit Javanese tradition, adhere to the path of the Mystics, rise in the ranks among the ascetics, or, if we’re willing to trade the clinical for the sensual, live on the island long enough to earn confidence of locals who encourage us to believe—at least not disbelieve—tales that step quite casually beyond reality.
Little did I know that at an acupuncture visit, I would learn that meditation challenged Death, literally on its own turf.
The lesson came from Tommy, a health couneslor and self-proclaimed Sufi spiritualist whose family held clout among the Central Javanese of standing. From his home near the “Flower Market” where the prostitutes lived, behind a banner advertising his trade like a mini-leaguer’s banner, He fused this spiritual expertise with methods of Chinese acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, chiropraxy, psychiatry. What were his credentials? Who cared? All that mattered was that he was a stand-up guy. He channeled qi under the name of Islam, placed gentle pressure on people who were lonely.
Dani was a most loyal patient. On the night he drove me to Tommy’s home, I ascended the steps to the second floor and entered a living room painted with assorted shades of spoiled milk. Four men lounged in the space around a low table with a tray of coffee and cakes, an open food storage container of stone rings, among the guests: cigarettes poised between their fingers as if they were dames in a renaissance painting, curves stripped to reveal featherlight bones puncturing the smoke they blew. The only man with heft sat at the end of the table with his stomach spilling over gym short elastic, held up by a durable net of skin that poked out from beneath faded cotton.
Tommy asked me why I had come. I confessed my anxiety about returning to the United States. “Kacau Pikiran,” marked by chronic stampede of thoughts.
He said “You want some acupuncture, yeah?” He stood up, walked over to a glass display case, and took out a container of needles all aligned in a row. It looked like a sewing needle kit. Bulbs gleamed at the ends of tiny shafts of metal. He picked up one needle, the smallest, and put it in the center of my head.
He left that needle balancing between my eyebrows like a radio antennae, sat back in his chair and patted his tummy, as if this finished the job. “I’m not a spiritual expert,” he said, “not compared to my ancestors. Back in my grandfather’s day, people had much more power than they do today. My grandfather was a legend, and people hardly have powers like his anymore.”
“Like healing earthly ailments, traveling between worlds. There was one experience pivotal in building my grandfather’s spiritual strength, and that was the burial.”
“The burial!” I exclaimed, looking around. The other men still sat motionless, each wrapped in his own scarf of smoke.
His grandfather was six feet underground when he realised he could either meditate or die. Those participating in the ritual were wrapped in cloth, arms held tight against the torso like the dead. They would receive no provisions, no air or light.
Hours went by. Days. He hungered and he ached. But he knew that like with any meditation, after a period of discomfort the pain would pass and he would reach another state, be it death or some other reality. The ants bit with less frequency and the muscle pain subsided, or maybe it was that he was just drifting out of consciousness.
After a week, he blacked out.
Perhaps in some compartment of his mind, some might say on an alternate plane of existence, he woke up. In that waking state he was able to travel like any other man. He could eat, converse with other people, make new acquaintances. He could travel to any part of the world he wished. He was, in every sense, free.
After the 40 days Tommy’s grandfather was rescued from the ground. He was one of 20 (of the original 200), who lasted that 40 day trial.
Assuming that all these people were hungry, the rescuers gave the remaining 20 their first meal. Once the food was placed in front of them, most of the people grabbed the food and stuffed their faces, eager to fill themselves after such a long period of starving.
Their stomachs couldn’t withstand such an inrush of food, and so those who stuffed themselves died from bursting insides. After that first meal, 4 people out of the initial 20 survivors remained.
After that day, Tommy’s grandfather earned a great deal of clout in his community. People came to his house seeking his power. He could heal anything. He could communicate with the dead. He could travel across time and space to any any time and place he wished. He was unbound by any constriction, because whatever was out there, he could communicate with it, whittle it to his will.
I wanted to ask Tommy why his grandfather wasn’t around anymore. If a great man could avert death once, what stopped him from living for eternity? But if Tommy’s grandfather was wise enough to understand the elements of life and of other dimensions, he probably knew that each human needn’t be extended nor confined by one’s physical form.
Still I wondered where he was. Maybe he was in the heirloom swords of the Javanese people. Maybe he was in the stone rings at the center of the table. Maybe he was in the incense rising from the table-side figurine. Maybe he was under the fold of Tommy’s belly fat. Who who knew?
But was clear from the story was that his power arose from the ability to let go of what most people clung to. I’ll never forget that. I realised that even if I didn’t have the power to lay underground, maybe I could manage to let go of where I was.
Cognitively or spiritually, or even physically—some day I would be able to come back to Indonesia. Or not. And that was OK too.