Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Goddesses in Eve Ensler's Memoir 'In the Body Of the World'

I finished reading In the Body of the World, the 2013 memoir by dramatist/activist Eve Ensler, on Monday night. Because I wrote about it in some detail on Book Club Friday last week, I don't feel the need to share my review here, although I did review it on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instead, I thought I 'd write about the goddess chapter in this book, in which Ensler - an atheist with an ethnic Jewish father and a WASP mother - calls upon the aid of two goddess-figures as she battles the cancer inside her. The chapter is called "Tara, Kali, and Sue." Although the chapters aren't numbered (they aren't in my ARC - maybe they are in the final print edition), it occurs approximately in the center of the book.

Yet before she starts chemotherapy, Ensler takes a pink shawl, lays it out reverently, and makes an altar to Tara and Kali. Tara is for protection. She calls Tara "the mother of all Buddhas" and says she fights off fear and demons.


My introduction to Tara came through a book called Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld (Shambhala Publications - Boston - 1977). This book is the same age as me, and I think I picked it up at a yard sale. I wrote about Kuan Yin in The Smell of Gas, but it's difficult to say whether the book was intended to be research or just part of my usual habit of collecting feminist and feminine-spiritual books.

Blofeld writes, "...Tara, a beautiful deity able to manifest herself in twenty-one different forms for the sake of succoring sentient beings...emanating from the compassionate Bodhisattva, she is immensely popular in Tibet and Mongolia where her devotees credit her with two main functions: rescuing beings from present woes and assisting them to rid themselves of the delusions binding them to samsara....

"....Whether visualized as a sweet-faced matron or as a winsome sixteen-year-old maiden, she has two principal embodiments known as the Green Tara and the White. They are much alike except that, from her seat upon a moon disc supported by a giant lotus, the Green Tara extends one foot as though about to rise from meditation, whereas the White Tara sits in meditation posture and further differentiated by having a 'wisdom eye' in the centre of her forehead as well as eyes in the palms of each hand."

Blofeld goes on to say that Tara is merged with Kuan Yin in the popular Chinese imagination, and that she is beloved figure among Tibetan, Nepali and Mongolian Buddhists. Unfortunately, I don't know much else about Tara, but the idea of her seems to be strongly linked to the embodiment of the Buddha's compassion. 


Kali is for what Kali is always for: destruction. Death. Burning. Kali's destructive path of fire is ultimately constructive: she burns away what must be burned away so that life can continue. Here, she represents the lifesaving destructiveness of the chemo itself, the poison that will burn away the rapidly dividing killing cells.

Kali is also depicted with the third eye/wisdom eye in the center of her forehead. Tara is compassion, and Kali is destruction, but both embody wisdom - wisdom is essential in all things, whether saving a life from excruciating suffering or bringing cleansing through death.

Ensler's prayer reads:

"Burn it away, Kali, burn it away. Make it new. Take me to the core of holy destruction and death and let me survive your excruciating heat. Let me throw what isn't useful into your flame. Dissolve it there are make me new, make me whole. Burn off all the cells that are compulsively dividing and subdividing. Burn off all the parts of me that create separation and division. Burn off the stories. Burn off my contempt and my self-pity. Burn off all the ways I get ahead of myself and try to get ahead of others. And Tara, open my heart. Make me one with all sufferers."


The Sue of the chapter title refers to Ensler's therapist, who tells, her, "The chemo is not for you. It is for the cancer, for all the past crimes, it's for your father, it's for the rapists, it's for the perpetrators. You're going to poison them now and they are never coming back. Chemo will purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours....Your job is to welcome the chemo as an empathetic warrior, who is coming in to rescue your innocence by killing off the perpetrator who got inside you...fighting on your behalf and on behalf of all women's bodies, restoring wholeness, innocence, peace."

Calling on Tara, Kali and Sue works for Ensler. The chemo works. Her cancer retreats, and she lives to eat and work again. She lives to visit the Congo and see the City of Joy and the wild gorillas. In a Hawthornesque fashion, the book ends with a word repeated three times:

Rising. Rising. Rising

Actually, the closing line of "Rising" strikes several literary chords - not only Hawthorne's "Be true! Be true! Be true!" but also Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise" and even the ending of Virginia Woolf's closing of Orlando, with Orlando rising up and crying out, "It is the goose!...the wild goose!," the elusive beauty that can never quite be caught the way the poet struggles to capture individual moments on the page, but the past is always elusive and the poet is always caught in the present.

The title, In the Body of the World, may call to mind the admonition among Christians, "Be in the world but not of the world" - in reverse. Ensler is asking us through this book to be in our bodies and of the world, valuing ourselves, valuing other people and valuing the planet as a whole. Is that opposed to Christian doctrine? Not at all. Christians remind each other not to value worldly, material things more than they value the eternal things, but that doesn't mean to neglect other people or let the planet come to harm. Having a hope for an eternal life isn't an excuse to cause or allow misery in this one.

When Ensler asks us to be of the world, she wants us to think about how our actions in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. or some of the other very privileged parts of the world can affect people in the less-privileged parts of the world - not because of some misguided "white savior complex" but in the very real sense that we're all made of the same fragile stuff. Whether there is heaven, reincarnation, enlightenment or not, we all have a very finite time in these human skins.

Yet we are rising. There's hope. No matter what our religion or lack thereof, at times we need to call on the wisdom of other human beings. Sometimes, too, we need to call on something greater than ourselves and our limited human powers. Sometimes even atheists have need of the infinite power and compassion of the Goddess, whether one imagines the Goddess as something part of ourselves or as separate from ourselves.

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