Maranassati sutta

At one time, the Exalted One was staying at Nadika in the Brick Hall. And there the Exalted One addressed the monks. ‘Monks.’ ‘Sir,’ the monks replied. ‘Mindfulness of death, monks, when cultivated and made much of, is of great fruit and great reward: it associates with the deathless and has as its conclusion the deathless. Monks, cultivate mindfulness of death.

When he had spoken a certain monk said this to the Exalted One. ‘Sir, I do cultivate mindfulness of death.’ ‘And how, monk, do you cultivate mindfulness of death?’ ‘Here, sir, I reflect, “If I were to live, day and night, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

And another said, ‘I do cultivate mindfulness of death, sir’. And the Exalted One replied, ‘And how, monk, do you cultivate mindfulness of death, ‘Here, sir, I reflect, “If I were to live, throughout the day, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

And another: ‘Here, sir, I reflect, “If I were to live, for such time as it takes to eat one almsmeal, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

And another: “If I were to live, for such time as I chew and swallow five mouthfuls, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

And another: “If I were to live, for such time as I chew and swallow one mouthful, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

And another: “If I were to live for just such time as, having breathed in, I breathe out, and having breathed out, I breathe in, paying attention to the teaching of the Exalted One, a great deal would be done by me”. This is how I cultivate mindfulness of death, sir.’

This beautiful text of the Pali Canon, from an anthology by Sarah Shaw, as it happens often with texts dealing with death, is at the same time, a hymn to life. I read it like this:

If I were to live, a day and a night, just like today, running along the beach in the morning before crossing Barcelona riding my bike to work while listening to Scarlatti sonatas, having tea and toats for breakfast while reading the pending emails; back at home in the afternoon, greeting the plants in the terrace, reading, playing music, sweeping the floor, cooking dinner, eggplant, bream, white wine, some TV and reading in bed before turning thoughts into the dreams to live during the night, a great deal would be done by me.

If I were to live, throughout the day, starting a new path, whether wandering in a unknown city, hiking in the wild with my backpack, a bike route, kayaking in a river, driving a car towards the horizon, this would be more than enough.

If I were to live throughout an hour, being the kid that discovered the neighborhood, hand in hand with mom and dad, I would think life is worth living. If I were to live for an hour, watching Teresa and Maria playing, this would be more than enough.

If I were to live for such time as it takes to eat a meal, dancing, first alone, then lindy hop with a girl, and a blues for dessert, I would be more than happy.

If I were to live, for such time as I chew and swallow one mouthful, hugging the girl I love, this would suffice.

f I were to live for just such time as, having breathed in, I breathe out, and having breathed out, I breathe in, watching some swallows drawing lines in the sky, flying happily, a great deal would be done by me.

Destiny lottery

In All-saints 2012 I stated that every human life would deserve a biography, and I even amused myself imagining a “Museum” containing the biographies of all the people that we estimate have existed, around 107.000 million.

I find more appealing the idea of billions of concrete lives rather than an abstract definition of a human being. We may wonder about what kind of life we have, compared with all the others. In his “Anatomy of Melancholy”, Robert Burton asks whether we would share alike the part of the sum of all human miseries, diseases, beggary, imprisonment, or rather take our actual part.

In the myth of Er in the Republic, Plato presents the souls about to choose their next life, reincarnating after death. The order is decided by a lottery. What if our life, among the 107.000 million, were decided by a lottery? I’ve attempted a simple simulation in javascript.

The first draw decides between 8 time lapses, starting 50.000 years ago to the time present. The second draw determines where we are going to be born, which geographical zone. These time-space coordinates establish which civilization we would live in, what kind of social organization it has, what is the situation of women in it. This is what is going to be decided in the next two draws, which social layer we belong to (King or slave?), and our gender.

The model, obviously, is oversimplified. However, it illustrates that in this lottery, the most probable destiny is to be a farmer or a slave in an agricultural society and, if we happen to be a woman, we will suffer an extra submission, based on gender.  As Scheler said in “Man’s Place in Nature”, rare and short are the periods when culture blossoms in the history of mankind. Rare and short is beauty in its delicacy and fragility.

enter the destiny lottery!





3 days. Barcelona. Reading the Divine Comedy

In April 2013 I had some spare holidays left and almost no budget. I had long wanted to read the Divine Comedy again. In 2000 I toured La Mancha riding my bike while reading The Quixote and it turned out a great experience. If Xavier de Maistre could do a Journey around his room, I might as well make a journey without leaving my city, Barcelona. I decided to use the Joan F. Mira’s version. I estimated that I could finish the reading in three days. I had to invent an itinerary that, inevitably had to be completely arbitrary.
The first thought was that I could use different means of transport every day and book.
The obvious choice for the Hell was the underground. I worked out how to ride through every station and added a visit to the Court building where perhaps I could watch real condemned.
I would move around by bus on Purgatory day and take this opportunity to undergo an delayed experiment: to catch a bus at random, get off anywhere and wander around until taking another bus at random.
Paradise would be by bike.

For three days I followed the narrative of personal salvation carried out by Dante, thanks to Beatrice’s love. This journey classifies what should be condemned in Hell, what kind of labors must be done in Purgatory and what is rewarded with perpetual holidays in Paradise. I couldn’t help joining the sport of sending contemporary characters to their presumably deserved place.

Among the many findings provided by this reading I would mention here just one: the idea that the most sacred, the sublime, that what marks the experience of the union with God and the universe, is a smile, laughing, as in this most extraordinary and happy expression: “the smile of the universe.”

Cio` ch’io vedeva mi sembiava un riso
de l’universo; per che mia ebbrezza
intrava per l’udire e per lo viso.
What I beheld seemed unto me a smile
Of the universe; for my inebriation
Found entrance through the hearing and the sight.
Oh gioia! oh ineffabile allegrezza!
oh vita intègra d’amore e di pace!
oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza!
O joy! O gladness inexpressible!
O perfect life of love and peacefulness!
O riches without hankering secure!

The strategy of alternating reading and wandering to a different location almost every Chant, worked very well. I never got tired of reading and I could explore my city through new perspectives. In the way of travelogues, I’ve compiled a double one, the “reading” of the city, riding subway, bus and bike, and the “journey” along the pages of the Divine Comedy. Click her for a general view or go directly to Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise. (catalan only, you may use Google translate).

Fall 2013. Grevolosa beech forest

The Grevolosa beech forest near Torello is not huge what it contains some extraordinary trees, some of them catalogued as heritage trees.

It can be visited in a short walk leaving from “El molí de Bracons” on  route BV 5224. Following 20 min through a track, there is a nice narrow path through box bushes, like a corridor that does not foretell de amplitude of the space one encounters when it reaches the Grevolosa Forest with its towering beeches.

Neither sight nor the camera have field amplitude enough to scope it without scrolling. I have tried to convey this by stitching several vertical pictures (using the excellent free stitching software Microsoft ICE, planarmotion3 mode).

All Saints 2013. Funeral at Debre Libanos

Debre Libanos, perhaps the most revered monastery in Ethiopia. At a funeral, the men carry the coffin on the shoulders. Behind, some women mourn and cry. We are told that there are people close to the family, not paid mourners as the ones found in other cultures.  In Spain, “plañideras” are back, after being banned by the church (news). In Queretaro (Mexico) there are even contests. In rural Ethiopia, all the community is involved in the ceremony. Each family contributes to a common fund and burial expenses are shared.

Later, in another funeral, maybe someone wealthier, some men are on horseback, and at one point, the women jump in a synchronized manner:

I am fascinated by this way of expressing an emotion, collectively, with the body. Some days later, in the south, in Turmi, in a Hamer community, and in a very different cultural context, I see again women jumping, this time on occasion of the famous bull jumping ceremony when a boy has to walk over the back of a some bulls in a row  without falling. You can feel the impact of the women on the floor.

Why is that this form of expressing emotions can be found in two relatively different areas and cultures? What would be the map of it?

It makes me wonder about  the similarities between the forms of devotion in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Judaism or Islam. The cult is not only indoors, but also in the open space surrounding the building, usually circular or octagonal: It has an important role, similar to that found in mosques. People must remove their shoes, as Jews and Muslims, too.  Before entering the compound, people stop at the door, touch the wall and pray. Despite the differences in what is believed, the form of worship is much closer to Jews and Muslims than to the Catholic or Greek Orthodox Church. Could this be explained by climate? By the fact that they are fundamentally pastoralists?

In this 1 min video there is a chant recorded in a church compound; ullulation at 40’’.

In the north, graves in cemeteries are protected by railings. In the south, graves are scattered; it seems that people can be buried in the land where the family lives.

Museum of biographies

In the cemetery post, I said that no life was insignificant and that all of them deserved a biography. But most lives are anonymous. All lives, what would this mean? I can think of a project-installation showing short imagined biographies for all the people that have ever existed, around 107 billion according the Population reference Bureau estimates. How big would it be? If we assigned a 10×10 cm card in thin bible paper for each one, a deck 1 cm wide would contain around 1000 people (a small village), in a 1 m row, the 100.000 that populate an average city; a million in 1×1 m drawer (in less than 3 drawers, the population of Barcelona). In a cubic meter chest, with 10 drawers, 10 million biographies. In columns with 5 chests, 50 billion, and every 20 meters we would have a billion of cards.

If we would set them in galleries 100 m long, 5 m wide containing two corridors, our imaginary museum would have 11 galleries, 100×100 m, about the same size of a city block. Every year we have 140 million new cards corresponding to newborns, 14 archives, almost 3 columns) and 57 million people deceased have their cards filed forever.

Arxiu biografies

If we wander around the blocks looking at some labels, we notice that most of the cards of the last corridor correspond to people alive. The people living today suppose around 7% of all the people that have ever lived. On the other side, for thousands of years, the earth was populated by a small number of people. The population of thousands of paleolithic generations would fill just a bit more than a 20 meter block (PRB estimates 1.187 million people born since the beginning of the human species to 8000 BC). What kind of stories would we read in that section? Something like Jean Marie Auel’s? Most of the lives in this period would be children; life expectancy was very low, around 10 years. And for many generations people would not have a name. By year 1 CE, some 46 billion new people would be born, and 38.000 more until modern era.

We could also devise this imaginary museum proportionally along time, 3 meters for century. Instead of a compact city block, our archive-museum would extend for 1.500 meters and, most of it, it would be quite narrow, just a meter wide. Until 26.000 BC we would not reach a million people born in a century, a drawer. And not until 14.600 BC a chest with ten million would be filled. Around 7.500 BC, about 1200 meters, we would have 50 million people born in a century, a column 5 m high. From this point on, the museum would increase its width reaching 1.000 million (a 20 meter corridor) by 1.600 BC; 2.000 million in the first century CE and a 120 m gallery to acommodate all the people born in the 20th century, more than 6 billion.

Arxiu biografies

I imagine, for an instant, holding the thin sheet of paper of my own card, just one among so many lives. I read others, those of my daughters, still a draft, my parents, people I loved. IF I walk backwards, and explore at random tpicking one corresponding for the four or five generations in every century, after 60 meters I would have walked 20 centuries to the beginning of the common era, I would have read around 100 cards. What a diversity of circumstances! although I guess that from a certain point, most of them must have been farmers. How many of them could read? What kind of beliefs, hopes did they hold? I go on for 450 m, and thanks to the Genographic project, at 13.500 BC I find Haplogroup V where there was a woman with the same mitochondrial mutation that my mother transfered to me, and somewhere in the following 500 m, between 30.000 BC and 13.000 BC, in some place in the near east, a man from Haplogroup G, with the m201 mutation of cromosome Y that I received from my father. 600 m backwards, around 45.000 BC, its ancestor in haplogroup F, and R, in the near east, the second trip out of Africa, starting the journey to colonize the globe. We are not quite sure when to locate mitochondrial Eve  and Y-chromosomal Adam  in east Africa where, during many generations the initial small group of homo sapiens survived.

Museu biografies


All Saints 2012

Some cemeteries in Barcelona offer tombstones with qrcodes so that visitors can learn more about the deceased just following the link in their smartphones.

Sometimes when wandering along niches in a cemetery, I read the names, dates, and I wonder about the lives of the people who are buried there, unknown names. When it is the case of a young boy or girl, or a child, I can not help thinking that they had to leave “too early”, perhaps because of a disease or an accident. All the others, what sort of life did they have? What did they do, what kind of events happened to them? No life is insignificant or worthless. Every one of them could have been the subject of a biography that no one wrote.

Just for an instant, I imagine that, suddenly, these rows of niches become the shelves of a library, with volumes of biographies, and perhaps personal diaries, and photo albums. Wandering among the aisles and shelves, I could open up a volume at random.


In a brief biography there could be something like:

  • 1947: Finds a job as librarian at the Faculty of Physics
  • 1955: Marries Joaquim Jove
  • 1956: Has a son who will be christened Angel.

In a diary or memoirs, perhaps there could be something like “I was twelve, and our class had been visiting the zoo. I was going back with a friend, walking along the harbor, when a woman that was selling tickets at the “Golondrinas” booth (boats in Barcelona’s harbor), called us and offered us free tickets for a ride because it was her birthday. I would always remember her kindness to us.”

There is no such a thing as an insignificant life. For every person we watch, we can imagine his past or his future (Post about four ages). In every instant, so many things happen that no biography nor memoir could fetch all this wealth. Not even the most compulsive diarist could record everything. For example, the joy that we feel when commuting to work, just because the wet heat of the summer is over and the first fresh autumn breeze arrives.

And even if they could exist, these infinite memoir volumes, no one could ever get to read even the most small fraction of them. There would be too many and too little time. Not even each of us about ourselves! We cannot keep track of everything that happens. It is sane let things go, as if we travelled with a small backpack, with room for the daily needs and just some light souvenirs, instead of a huge warehouse where all can be stored forever.

Anyway, I like the idea that no one is insignificant and uninteresting, and that these biographies could have been written and I could browse them.