Richard Gull Reflects on Karl Pohrt’s Life, His Religions, and Their Last Lunch

Richard Gull is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan a long-time friend of Karl Pohrt.    Richard's essay commemorating Karl    was published in the January through April 2014 issue.

Richard Gull is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan a long-time friend of Karl Pohrt. Richard's essay commemorating Karl was published in the January through April 2014 issue.

The Monk in the Glass Case

Karl’s reference to the monk in the glass case is in the context of his discussion of spiritual purity as a way of transcending death. [In an essay he sent to me years ago,] he wrote:

“The belief that spiritual purity can somehow be translated into the physical body is widely held in many religious traditions. Carry this a bit further and you find people who hold that the body of a spiritually pure person can even transcend death.”

 “. . . It is not as distant or bizarre an idea as it at first might seem. It surfaces in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov in the hopes of the monks surrounding Father Zossima before his death. This idea also occurs in Buddhism.”

“. . .When we arrived, the temple [containing the mummified monk] was empty. At midafternoon, the interior of the building was drenched in light. We walked up to the front. A Buddha figure dominated the center of the altar, and to the left, sure enough, was the mummified monk.”

  “. . .Like medieval European religious art, the body of the monk could be read as an example of spiritual purity or as a reminder of our mortality. It constellates (as the Jungians would say) in a number of symbolic directions.”

 “ . . .Standing in this sunlit temple staring at the husk of this man who had been engaged in the interesting and most serious project of being a Buddhist monk brought me up short, stopped me like the sharp shock of the Zen’s teacher’s stick.”

“But the illusion of spiritual suspended animation was shattered because, up close, I realized his eyeballs were gone, leaving large convex sockets, making his face appear skull-like. The monks in the temple solved this problem by placing wrap-around sunglasses on his face. The effect was extremely disconcerting. He looked very cool and very dead.” (from “The Dead Monk in a Glass Case: Reflections on Meditation and the Body”)


So the traditional connection between spiritual purity and immortality, found in Dostoyevsky and Buddhism, is threatened by the nakedness of the monk’s eye sockets in his skull looking so death like; the sunglasses are an almost humorous attempt to preserve the illusion of the connection by “disguising” the monk’s status as dead. It reminds one of the sugarcoating of death in Huxley’s Brave New World. I am reminded of this image of the monk by Karl’s photo with sunglasses in front of the Hotel Karma.

Karl, like the monk, has been engaged in the “interesting and most serious project of being” a spiritual person but he sees the cosmic joke in our attempts to exaggerate our spiritual power. The last line of Karl’s essay reads: “He looked very cool and very dead.”  Being “very cool” is here humorously exposed as a bit of vanity in the face of death and is quickly exposed as such that by Karl’s blunt observation that the monk is also “very dead.”

“Migrations: Umiak with Spirit Figures” by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Karl saw this sculpture at the Museum of the Native American Indian in an exhibition called Arctic Journeys, Ancient Memories. He saw the sculpture in November 2012, just before he began chemotherapy at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. Abraham Anghik Ruben, Inuit and living in British Columbia, is well known in Canada but not often seen in the U.S., although I saw a similar Ruben sculpture also about migration with an umiak and spirit figures at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco in November 2013. An umiak is a boat whose frame is often made from whalebone. The umiak is usually a metaphor for community.

Karl put a photo of Ruben’s Migration sculpture on his blog post of November 25, 2012. He writes about how he thinks of death as a migration and not a termination. I wanted to use the image of the sculpture in Karl’s eulogy but was told by the legal department as the Smithsonian that we could not use the image in the exhibition catalogue because it is copyrighted. So I emailed Mr. Ruben, told him about Karl’s death and my eulogy, and asked for permission to use an image of Migrations. He wrote back:

“Dear Mr. Gull, you have my permission to use the photo of Migrations solely for the purpose you have stated in your email. My thoughts and prayers go to you and yours for the loss of a dear friend. Regards, Abraham Ruben.”


But even with Mr. Ruben’s permission, the Smithsonian could not supply me with an image because they no longer had the sculpture. The Arctic Journeys Ancient Memories exhibition had ended in D.C., and the sculpture was back with its owner, Sprott Asset Management, in Toronto. So I called Sprott’s corporate headquarters and was directed to Fay House who manages their artistic assets. She said we could use the photo for the article and sent four photos to choose from.

I wanted a photo of “Migrations” in the article because Karl saw it when he began chemotherapy, wrote about it in his blog, and used it as an artistic metaphor for migrating out of this life. Ruben’s work in general is suffused with spiritual meanings. Abraham Ruben says that he is grateful to his teachers for nurturing in him “an understanding of the inner workings of the spirit. I was very receptive to these ideas, for my own Inuit background spoke of the concepts of the soul (Inua in Inuit), reincarnation, dreams, spiritual travel, and invisible worlds.” The sculpture also visually captures what I referred to in the article as regarding nature as “objectively sublime,” a kind of nature mysticism that I attribute to both Karl and the Esalen founders Murphy and Price.

The figure at the helm of the umiak appears to me to be Raven, god of attention. Raven was an important spirit animal to Karl. Karl became a Buddhist out of a desire to live life fully awake. In the essay “The Dead Monk in the Glass Case,” Karl discussed his profound hearing loss that occurred decades ago and how his near deafness made him aware of the value and the problems of awareness. He wanted to overcome what his hearing loss was doing to him spiritually, for example, how when he wore hearing aids he felt that people regarded him as handicapped.

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Posted on January 21, 2014 and filed under Philosophy, Winter 2014 Issue, Spirituality, Art.