Tell Me: What Is Maya?

Tell Me: What Is Maya?

The masses are taught the ideal of a moral life, but the individual is taught the inner life.
– Moebirman

“But what,” my new friend says, “if it is all maya? It is all illusion. Then why bother to challenge anything? What if all of it – the dying orphan in Haiti, the people who can’t afford to keep their water turned on here in Central Oregon, my fury at injustice – what if all of it is just maya?”

I see real pain in her face. If she faces what I say next, then she may have to feel a weight on her spirit that could seem unbearable.

We have nothing to lose here. “Ask the Haitian orphan,” I say. “Ask the thirsty. Ask your fury.”

I shut up. I want to say more, but I don’t. I want to say that there is no way for a Westerner who does not meditate, who does not move out into the dying and the hungry, who does not let her own fury become molten, to understand maya. I perform all three rituals and I do not understand maya.

Lwir mawayang tahen gati
nikang wukir kineliran
humarang anipis

Hence the trees change into shadows
and the spirit of the ancestors
animates the living world

– Moebirman

Later, I am packing a book on Javanese shadow puppets to send to my grandson in Singapore. I leaf through the book. My grandson’s father, my son, once brought me a shadow puppet from Bali. I held it against the light in my cabin’s southern window. I could see pine and the soft blue of evening through the delicate leather lacework. The puppet had the improbably long arms of a deity. Its nose was pointed. It was possible to move its arms and legs into the postures of a dance. I pushed its central support down into the earth of a potted geranium. You can see it: a black god/dess dancing in the pink and red blossoms.

Perhaps this is maya: how I am transported as I write about the shadow puppet to a more beloved home, a more beloved time, a more beloved self; how you might be transported as you read; how I tell you that most of the trees seen through the puppet’s lacework have been cut, that I was unable to stop the murders, and that this morning I read of a speech by a deliberately venal and ignorant woman to a crowd of frightened and angry people, a speech in which she twisted the words “revolution” and “government corruption” and “patriotism” – and I do not know how to stop her.

But, perhaps, there is no maya except in our stories of helplessness and despair, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell each other – the stories we can bring into the light and see that they are shadows, not of the spirits of wise ancestors, but shadows cast by television screens and security lights and the iridescence that can emanate from something rotting.

Step out of your house. Walk. Stop and touch the ground. Walk further. Stop in front of the guy begging in front of the coffee shop, the guy with the sign that says, “Gulf Vet,” the guy with the cat carrier on the back of his beater bike and the cat curled up peacefully in his lap. Determine whether the guy is maya. Give him some money. Don’t count it, just reach in your pocket and grab a few bills. The guy will probably bless you. Or not.

Tell me, what is maya?