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23 November, 2012

Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa: Life

Bhutanese painted thanka of Milarepa (1052-1135),
Late 19th-early 20th Century, Dhodeydrag Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan
Overlooking Pelgyeling Gompa at Milarepa's Cave, Tibet

The nine storey tower
that Milarepa single-handedly built,
Sekhar Gutok, Lhodrag, Tibet


       About five centuries after Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, a man from Tibet called Marpa travelled to India.  And whereas Bodhidharma came to teach the Way, Marpa went to learn it.  He spent two decades at a school, and became enlightened; then he returned to his home.  He soon gained a reputation for great wisdom, and attracted disciples from throughout that mountainous land.  The greatest of these disciples - who became even greater than Marpa himself - was called Milarepa.
       Milarepa's father was one of the wealthiest men in Tibet, with a large estate and a fine mansion; his mother was renowned for her beauty.  At the age of six Milarepa was betrothed to a cousin called Zessay.  A year later Milarepa's father caught a fatal disease.  He summoned his relatives to his bedside, and declared: Until my son reaches adulthood, I entrust my property to my brother and his wife.
       As soon as the funeral rites were over, Milarepa's uncle and aunt moved into the mansion.  They forced Milarepa and his mother to live in a small but nearby, and to work as servants in  the mansion.  And they employed ten large men to protect themselves.  When Milarepa reached adulthood, they claimed that his father had intended that they should keep the mansion and estate permanently.
      Milarepa's mother was furious, and poisoned by hatred.  She sent her son to the great magician Yung, to learn how to destroy the wicked uncle and aunt.  And she gave him her own small inheritance, in order to pay Yung.


       Yung taught Milarepa his most deadly magic, and Milarepa began to cast spells.  His uncle and aunt suffered two terrible misfortunes: a hailstorm destroyed all their crops; and one night soon afterwards a fire broke out in the wing of the mansion where their children were sleeping, and burnt them all to death.
       Milarepa's mother was delighted to see her enemies suffer.  But, Milarepa was filled with remorse.  When Yung saw Milarepa's reaction, he said: 'You are too good to be a magician.  Go to the great sage Marpa, and learn the Way.'  Milarepa had heard of neither Marpa nor the Way; and he asked Yung for directions to Marpa's house.
       Milarepa walked for several days across the mountains.  When he reached the region where Marpa lived, he saw a fat, ruddy-faced man plowing a field.  'Where is Marpa's house? he asked.  'If you finish plowing this field; the man replied, I shall show you.'  Milarepa took the plow; and the man immediately walked away.  Milarepa felt obliged to finish plowing the field.  Then he followed the man.
       He came to a small white house, and went inside.  He was surprised to find that the man was now dressed in a yellow robe.  'I am looking for Marpa', Milarepa said, 'I am he', the man replied.  'I wish to follow the Way'.  Milarepa said, 'I can only teach you', Marpa said, 'if you submit yourself to me in body, as well as in mind'.  Milarepa agreed.
       The next day Marpa said:  'I want you to build me a tower, six stories high.  When you have completed it, I shall teach you all the wisdom I learnt in India'.


       So Milarepa began to build a tower, collecting large stones and laying them one on top of the other.  when it was three stories high, Marpa came, and said:  'This is the wrong site; it should be on the western crest of the mountain'.  so Milarepa pulled down what he had built, and repeated his work on the western crest.
       When the tower was three stories high, Marpa came, and said:  'You are building it the wrong shape.  It's round, and it should be square'.  So Marpa pulled down what he had built, and reconstructed it on square foundations.  As soon as it was finished, he went to Marpa, and begged to be taught.  'How tall is it?'  Marpa asked, 'Six stories', Milarepa replied.  'I want it ten stories high', Marpa declared; 'only then shall I teach you'.
       Milarepa was now utterly miserable; his hands were covered in sores from lifting stones, and every joint in his body was aching.  So he decided to leave; and that might he slipped away.  But at dawn the next day he said to himself:  'I made a vow to submit myself to Marpa in body as well as in mind.  I cannot break it'.  So he turned round, and slowly trudged back.
       As Milarepa reached the house, Marpa came to the door, smiled broadly, embraced him, and declared:  'My son!'  During the following weeks Marpa taught Milarepa all that he knew.  Then he said to Milarepa:  'You must now go and live in a cave, and meditate alone'.  He directed Milarepa to a cave halfway up a steep cliff, gave him food for a year, and promised to visit him each year with more food.


       Milarepa remained for eleven years in the cave; and each year Marpa brought him food.  At the end of that time Milarepa said to Marpa:  'Will you release me from my vow?  I feel impelled to return home'.  'You are destined to become a great teacher', Marpa replied; 'and your return home is part of your preparation.  therefore I release you'.
       Milarepa walked across the mountain for several days until he reached the place of his childhood.  The mansion was now a ruin, and a herdsman was sheltering in it; he told Milarepa that his uncle and aunt had been so stricken with grief at the death of their children, that they had given up farming, and now lived in a small hut.  Milarepa then went to his mother's house.  It too was a ruin; and a neighbor told him that his mother had died some years earlier.
       He now visited the home of Zessay's parents, to inquire about her; and he found Zessay still living there.  'Why have you not married?' he asked her.  'Since you went off to learn magic', she replied, 'no man dared to marry me, for fear that you would cast an evil spell on him'.  Milarepa was filled with guilt.  He did not know what to say; so he turned his back, and left.
       Nearby was one of the highest mountains in Tibet.  He climbed almost to the top, where he found a cave.  As a penance for the harm he had caused to Zessay, and to his uncle and aunt, he vowed to remain on the mountain for the rest of his life.  He ate only the nettles that grew on the mountain slopes; and gradually his skin turned green.


      One day a group of hunters passed by the cave, and went inside for shelter from the cold wind.  They were astonished to see inside a naked, green man, so thin that every bone was visible under his skin.  He was deep in meditation, so he did not notice them.  After staring at him for several minutes, they left.  when they returned home, they mentioned to friends what they had seen; and soon the story of the green man on the mountain spread throught the region.
      Zessay knew in her heart that the man was Milarepa; and despite the harm he had done to her, she overflowed with love for him - and wanted to look after him.  So she wrapped herself in her warmest clothes, filled a bag with food, and climbed the mountain.  When she arrived, she called out:  'Milerapa'.  Even though he was meditating, the familiar sound of her voice alerted him; and he came to her.  She was aghast at his appearance.  'You are no more than a skeleton!;  she exclaimed.  She offered him one of her tunics, but he refused.  'At least you must wear a cloth over your penis', she said.  'I have no cause for shame', he replied; 'I am as I have been made'.
       'Are you happy?'  Zessay asked.  'When I came to this cave, I was deeply troubled', Milarepa replied; 'but now I am numb, both in my mind and in body - I feel nothing'.  Then he asked Zessay if she was happy.  'No', she replied; 'I can find no peace'.  With these words she opened her bag of food, and they both ate.  And when they were satisfied, they embraced.  Then Milarepa took Zessay to a cave nearby, where she could make her home.


       That evening Milarepa passed on to Zessay all that Marpa had taught him about the Way; and then he went back to his own cave.  They both spent the night meditating; and at dawn they both attained enlightenment.  At midday they emerged from their caves.  Milarepa's skin was no longer green, but was brown and shiny; and Zessay's complexion gleamed in the bright sunshine.
       Meanwhile Zessay's parents were anxious at their daughter's failure to return.  So they too climbed the mountain.  when they saw Zessay, they were astounded at her appearance.  'For years your face has been darkened by sadness', her mother exclaimed; 'but now it is bright.  What has happened?'  When Zessay explained, they immediately went to Milarepa, and asked him about the Way.  And he repeated to them Marpa's teaching.  They decided to remain on the mountain; and a few weeks later they too became enlightened.
       News soon spread that Zessay and her parents had joined Milarepa on the mountain.  Others began to come, some out of curiosity, and some to learn the Way.  Like Marpa, Milarepa required his disciples to submit to him in body and in mind; then he told them to find a cave on the mountain, as near to the summit as possible.  By learning to endure the bitter cold, his disciples gained the same benefits that he had gained from building towers.  With a few years every cave on the mountain was occupied by a disciple - and then his school spread to other mountains throughout  Tibet.
Source: Excerpts from the Book on "366 Readings from World Religions" by Robert Van De Weyer.

13 November, 2012



       The principal sources, given in various translations, vary on their account of Bodhidharma being either:

  • "[A] monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asia "from Persia;
  • "[A] South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king."(Tanlin, 6th century CE);
  • "[W]ho came from South India in the Western Regions, the third son of a great Brahman king "the third son of a Brahman king of South India".
  • "[O]f South Indian Brahman stock"a Brahmin monk from South India"
  • Some traditions specifically specifically describe Bodhidharma to be the third son of a Tamil Pallava King from Kancheepuram.


       A thousand years after the Buddha had died, a man called Bodhidharma travelled from India to China.  From his youth he had followed the Way what the Buddha had taught, and he had attained enlightenment; so he was ready to enter nirvana.  But, he decided as the Buddha had done, to delay nirvana in order to teach others the Way; and he felt impelled to go to China for this purpose.  The voyage took him three years.

       When he arrived, he did not know what to say.  So he found a cave, and spent nine years deep in meditation, with his face to the wall.  At the end of that time he know he must visit the emperor of China.  As soon as he saw Bodhidharma, the emperor knew that he possessed great spiritual wisdom; and he began to boast how religious he was, and how many temples he had built.  'Your efforts are useless', Bodhidharma declared.  The emperor was offended, and asked in a curt voice:  'So what is your religion?'  'I do not have a religion', Bodhidharma replied.

       'By what principle do you live'? the emperor asked.  'The principle of emptiness," Bodhidharma replied.  By now the emperor was feeling angry.  'Who are you?' he asked in a loud voice.  'I do not know', Bodhidharma replied.  'Do you know anything?' the emperor asked.  "I know nothing'; Bodhidharma said - and walked away.

       The emperor regretted his anger, and sent a messenger to fetch Bodhidharma back.  Bodhidharma said to the messenger:  'If the emperor sent his whole army, I would not go.'  Some bystanders heard these words, and news quickly spread of Bodhidharma's defiance.


       It was now winter, and the land was covered with snow.  Bodhidharma found a derelict house, and settled there.  A few days later a young man (Dazu Huike) arrived and said to Bodhidharma: 'My mind is in turmoil.  Teach the Way that brings peace.'  Bodhidharma replied:  'Wait outside'.  The young man waited outside in the snow for seven days and nights.  Then Bodhidharma came out, and said to the young man:  'Show me your mind'.  The  young man replied: 'I cannot produce it because I do not possess it.'  'So', declared Bodhidharma.  'I have brought it peace'.  The young man understood; and Bodhidharma allowed him inside.

       During the following months many men and women from all over China came to Bodhidharma, in the hope that he would bring peace to their minds.  They collected wood and stone from the countryside nearby, and erected huts for themselves, and they waited for Bodhidharma to teach them.  finally, one hot summer's day, he came out of his house, sat cross-legged on the ground, and began to speak.  His words were not his own; he had learnt them, and understood their meaning, many years previously in India.

       'It is the task of enlightened men and women,' he began, 'to lead all living beings in the universe towards nirvana.  And in the course of time innumerable beings have been led to nirvana by enlightened men and women.  Yet in truth no being at all has been led to nirvana.  How is this?  If all people have in their minds the concept of being; they are not enlightened.  An enlightened man or woman has no concept of self or being, no concept of mind or peace.


       'Enlightened men and women,'Bodhidharma continued, 'are loving.  Yet their love is detached.  This means they love without regard to appearance - and without regard to sound, fragrance, or any other attribute.  Their love is not motivated by attachment, nor does it cause attachment.  Can you measure all space to the east?  Can you measure all space to the south, west or north?  Can you measure all space upwards or downwards?  Love, which is detached, is also beyond measure.

       Enlightened men and women teach the truth.  Some people are close to enlightenment; so when they hear the truth, they understand it.  The truth is that no being, and no entity of any kind, is separate and distinct; all are one.  So all sense of individuality is relinquished.  Even the sense of truth, as distinct from falsehood, is relinquished.

       'You may cut the flesh from every limb of an enlightened persons; yet that persons will not flinch, or show any response.  This is because that person has no sense of self as separate and distinct.

       'Enlightened men and women have thoughts which contain no images, no smell, no feelings, no objects of any kind.  They do not even think about the Way; for them the Way is neither present nor absent.'


       'Imagine', continued Bodhidharma, 'that someone filled three thousand planets and treasure - with gold and silver, diamonds and pearls - and then gave that treasure to the poor.  We should admire that person's goodness.  Imagine that someone heard four words of true teaching, understood them, and then explained them to others.  That person would merit far greater admiration.

       'Imagine that there were many rivers as there are grains of sand in the bed of one river.  If someone gave to the poor seven pieces of gold for every grain of sand on the bed of all those rivers, we should admire that person's goodness.  But if someone heard one word of true teaching, understood it, and explained it to someone else, that person would merit far greater admiration.

       'Enlightened men and women are determined to save all living beings from darkness.  Yet they know that, when all living beings have been saved, no one has been saved.  This is because the concept of saving a living being assumes that living beings are separate, distinct entities.  the light of truth shows athat there are no distinct and separate entities.  If people delcare their intention to save other loiving beings from darkness, they show themselves not to the enlightened.

       'If you become enlightened, nothing is gained; there is no profit in enlightenment.  enlightenment men and women know that all beings including even virtues, are like Bubbles in a stream or flashes of lightning.'


     According to Southeast Asian folklore, Bodhidharma travelled from South India by sea to Sumatra, Indonesia for the purpose of spreading the Mahayana doctrine. From Palembang, he went north into what are now Malaysia and Thailand. He travelled the region transmitting his knowledge of Budhism and martial arts before eventually entering China through Vietnam. Malay legend holds that Bodhidharma introduced preset forms to silat.


       Three years after Bodhidharma's death, Ambassador Song Yun of northern Wei is said to have seen him walking while holding a shoe at the Pamir Heights. Song Yun asked Bodhidharma where he was going, to which Bodhidharma replied "I am going home". When asked why he was holding his shoe, Bodhidharma answered "You will know when you reach Shaolin monastery. Don't mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster".
       After arriving at the palace, Song Yun told the emperor that he met Bodhidharma on the way. The emperor said Bodhidharma was already dead and buried, and had Song Yun arrested for lying. At the Shaolin Temple,  the monks informed them that Bodhidharma was dead and had been buried in a hill behind the temple. The grave was exhumed and was found to contain a single shoe. The monks then said "Master has gone back home" and prostrated three times:
       For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him;
      Carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony.
Source:  Satcho: 1) Hekiganroku and Dianmond Sutra - Excerpts from the Book on 366 Readings from World Religions by Robert Van De Weyyer. (2) Wikipedia

12 November, 2012


Zen Introduction

       In about 520 CE a man called Bodhidharma travelled from India to China.  He was well-versed not only in the ancient writings, but also in a newer work, the Diamond Sutra, which was said to 'cut through ignorance like a diamond.'  He attempted to win over the emperor, but was disgusted by the emperor's arrogance.  So he settled far away from the imperial palace, and waited for people to seek him out.  In this he was successful; a large number came, and he taught them both the Diamond Sutra and his interpretation of it.
       Disciple of Bodhidharma formed schools of their own; and by this means his teaching gradually spread across the entire Chinese empire.  It became known as Ch'an, which means 'meditation'.
       Buddhists ideas probably first reached Japan in the sixty century CE; but they were soon integrated within the native religion, Shintoism.  It was not until the twelfth century that disciples of Bodhidharma arrived in Japan - and Ch'an became known as ZEN.  As in China, schools were founded, where people could study for whatever period they wished.
       Buddhist influences came to Tibet both from India and china from the eighth century onwards.  The first great Tibetan teacher, Marpa, studied the The Diamond Sutra in India in the tenth century; and through his disciple Milarepa Buddhism reached the entire country.


       Enlightenment, in Zen teaching, is to know without any objects of knowledge.  Objects of knowledge, while they seem to be external, are, according to Zen, figments of the mind; thus they entangle the mind and disturb the soul.  By learning to know without object, the mind becomes free and the soul becomes calm.
       There are four main techniques for attaining enlightenment
       The first is the koan.  This is a nonsensical phrase, an insoluble question, or an absurd situation that defeats the normal workings of the mind.  The pupil is required to focus attention on the koan, so that it becomes the mind's sole object.  Ultimately the paradoxical nature of the koan makes this impossible - and the mind rejects all objects.
      The second technique is the mondo.  This is a rapid dialogue between the teacher and pupil, which aims to accelerate the process of thought beyond what the mind can handle.  The tacher may conclude the mondo with a sudden act of violence or a shriek, which shocks the pupil.
       The third  technique is for the teacher to undertake some pointless activity or suffer some needless discomfort.  Thus the mind's normal method of ascribing value and making choices is defied.
       And the fourth is for the teacher to create a situation in which the inner reality of enlightenment is made externally manifest.


       By its nature Zen is indifferent to the external aspects of religion - temples and shrines, rituals and festivals.  Zen teaches have usually treated them with respect, as mental props on which many people depend; but as they are objects of the mind, and so must ultimately be abandoned.
       Nonetheless Zen has held many sports, especially archery and fencing, in high esteem.  Through enlightenment the arrow or the blade ceases to be regarded as an object outside the mind, but becomes part of the mind.  Thus the individual can shoot an arrow or aim a sword with the same precision as thinking a thought.
       The greatest expression of ZEN has been in art.  As with the arrow and the blade, plants and trees, animals and birds, are regarded as part of the mind.  Thus the mind of the artist becomes the tree, and the tree, becomes the artist.  And the person looking at a work of art is invited to enter this union.  Zen drawings and paintings are astonishing in their sensitivity; and Zen sculpture is flowing and free, as if the subject of the scripture were alive.
       In all sports and arts Zen aims at wabi - which is finding unity within multiplicity, simplicity within complexity.  It is a quality of mind and spirit from which the necessary technical skills flow naturally.  Indeed, wabi should infuse every activity, even eating a meal or taking a stroll.


        Human civilization depends on reason and on the accumulation of knowledge.  Thus the primary purpose of our education has been to train the intellect and the memory.  Zen, however, urges us to transcend these mental abilities, an reach a higher spiritual plane. 
       Yet at the heart of Zen is a paradox.  Zen pupils are not required to be irrational or dim-witted; on the contrary, in the koan or the mondo, they are required to push the intellect to its limit.  Thus Zen does not treat education with contempt, but uses education to defy its own fruits.  the resolution to the paradox is that Zen encourages us to live at two levels, the rational and the spiritual - and to move freely between the two.  Thus by sharpening the faculty of reason, we are better able to rise above it; and by rising above reason, our practical skills are enhanced.
       While the koan and the mondo are peculiar to Zen, the experience induced by them is in some degree common to everyone; all people have sudden flashes of insight, which break through the confines of logic.  Zen urges us to take those flashes seriously.
Source:  Excerpts from the book on "366 Readings from World Religions" by Robert Van De  Weyer.

09 November, 2012

Why do we celebrate Diwali: Festival of Lights?

Diwali: The Festival of Lights


In Indian Culture

Why do we celebrate Diwali?

Diwali or Deepavali is amongst the most celebrated Indian festivals. The word Deepavali originates from two Sanskrit words Deepa ' which means ‘light' and Avali' which means ‘a row'. This is why Deepavali is called ‘the festival of lights'.

It is celebrated on the 15 th day of the Hindu month of Kartik which is a new moon day (Amavasya). Deepavali is celebrated by lighting diyas (earthen lamps), drawing rangolis (multicolored designs drawn on the ground with colored rice flour), cleaning and decoration of homes, wearing new clothes, preparation of sweets in homes, lighting of fireworks, veneration of cows as incarnations of Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) and Lakshmi Puja.

There are two main mythological stories that signify the importance of Deepavali

The first story is that Deepavali denotes the return of Lord Rama's return from exile after his victorious conquest of the evil king Ravana. This story has greater significance in Northern India

In Southern India, Deepavali marks the victory of Lord Krishna over the mighty asura (demon) Narakasura. Narakasura had become a menace to the gods in heaven and had snatched the magnificent earrings of Aditi (the Mother Goddess) and imprisoned sixteen thousand daughters of the gods in his harem. In desperation, the gods led by Indra requested Lord Krishna to destroy the demon as he was wreaking havoc. Lord Krishna readily agreed, fought a fierce battle and emerged victorious. It was after this that He accepted the sixteen thousand damsels as his wives at their request.

The meaning behind these mythological stories is that the villain of the piece represents the desire-ridden ego. In our lives, it is our egos and desires that create problems for us

In the story of Lord Krishna above, the sixteen thousand damsels represent our numerous desires. When they are controlled by our egos, they cause destruction and rob us of our joy. 

However, when we work selflessly, dedicating our actions to a higher goal, the desires remain in check, and most importantly, get sublimated. Each one of us has positive and negative tendencies. 

When we identify with the good in us, work towards something beyond our selfish interests the lower, negative tendencies fade away. Our desires get sublimated and through constant sadhana (spiritual practice) we overcome our ego and desires. The darkness of ego and desire are banished, replaced by the light of wisdom. Knowledge that we are not incomplete and limited as we think ourselves to be. But that we are that Divine Self that is free and independent of the entire world has to offer.

The scented bath before the break of dawn and the cleaning of homes during Deepavali signify the cleansing of the personality of desires and ego

The new clothes represent our newly acquired state of Realization or at a more basic level our new spiritual orientation and commitment to self-development. 

This change brings sweetness in our lives which are why sweets are made and distributed in the community. It represents the fact that once we turn spiritual and begin looking within, we experience a quiet sense of peace that we cannot experience while chasing objects of the world.

Thus, Deepavali or Diwali has a tremendous spiritual significance in our lives. And like all our festivals, they are reminders for us to retain and cultivate that spiritual element in our lives. Because life is more than just a journey, it is a search for meaning.

Source:  An article on the significance of Diwali written by Smt. Jaya Rao, founder Vedanta Vision, Mumbai.

05 November, 2012



      As many native people began to adopt the customs of the white people, Chief Smohalla of the Wanapam urged them to return to their traditional ways:


      God declared that the land, the lakes and the rivers should be held in common; that they should not be marked off or divided, but that all people should be free to hunt and to fish wherever they want.  God proclaimed that he himself is the father of all people, and that the earth is their mother - so all people are their children.  He proclaimed that the laws of nature are his laws; and that, just as all animals and fish and plants obey those laws, so must all men and women.

       Then the white people came; they divided up the land, and gave tracts of land to one another.  They wrote out a piece of paper for each tract of land, on which was written the name of the owner; and they said that these pieces of paper gave the owners the right to do as they wished on the land.  These white owners seized red people.  They ordered them to plow the soil and grow crops, to cut the grass and make hay, and to chop down the trees and build houses.

       Shall I obey these orders?  Shall I plow the land to grow crops?  I should rather take my knife and cut off my mother's breasts.  Shall I cut the grass for hay?  I should rather cut off my mother's hair.  Shall I chop down trees and build houses?  I should rather chop the limbs off my mother's body.

       The earth is our mother - the mother of all people.  The soil is her breasts, the grass is her hair, and the trees are her limbs.  Let us refuse to murder our own mother.  And let us protect her from all who try to rape her and destroy her beauty.

Source: 366 Readings from World Religions by Robert Van De Weyer

04 November, 2012



       In no native American language is there a term which could translate as 'religion'; but in every language there is a term for 'tradition', which embraces religion.  Religion is seen as an integral aspect of the tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next.  This adherence to tradition suggests that the native American religions changed very little from the time when human beings first came to North America tens of thousands of years ago, until Europeans began to arrive in significant numbers a few hundred years ago.
       The native American traditions are oral, without any sacred writings in which beliefs are encapsulated and rituals prescribed.  But as white settlers began to encroach their lands, several native American chiefs and preachers felt impelled to articulate their faith to the white commanders and governors  - and their speeches were transcribed by white witnesses.  These speeches provide the most direct insight into native American religion; and they are striking in their combination of simplicity and profundity.

       By the middle of the nineteenth century a growing number of white Americans became anxious that American native traditions would soon die out; and there was an urgent effort to record native American customs, rituals, social structures, and ideas.  It was soon discovered that the primary means of conveying ideas, including religious ones, was the folktale.  Thus hundreds of folktales from every tribe were written down.  Paradoxically these records are now being used by native Americans themselves as guides to the renewal of their culture and religion.


      The central feature of native American religion lies in the attitude to nature.  All living beings - all animals and birds, insects and fish, all trees and plants - are regarded as sacred; indeed, the natural order as a whole is equated with the divine order.  The majority of native American people live by hunting.  But this is not seen as an exploitation of nature, or as an assertion of human superiority over animals; rather it is regarded as human participation in the divine order.  There are many folktales that warn of the dangers of excessive hunting; and when the white settlers hunted the buffalo virtually to extinction in the late nineteenth century, there was not only alarm amongst native Americans at the loss of a vital source of food, but deep moral and spiritual outrage.

       The sense of the sacred extends to the earth itself.  Since humanity is one species amongst many, it cannot own any land; all land belongs to God, to be shared by all the living beings that inhabit it.  At the same time people are spiritually attached to the land where they were born, and where their ancestors are buried.  Thus there was further outrage at the white settlers laying exclusive claim to ranches and farms - and incomprehension at white people's willingness to abandon the land of their own birth, and seek wealth hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

       Attachment to land extends beyond life into eternity.  At death the body is absorbed by the soil, while the spirit continues to roam the forests and fields.  And the living look to the dead for both guidance and comfort.


      Just as native Americans identify the natural order with the divine order, so they identify symbols with reality.  In particular, rituals are seen as effective means of attaining that which they represent.  The war-dances prior to combat help to ensure victory; the ceremonies prior to hunting, in which the dancers imitate the sounds and movements of their prey, help to ensure success; and the healing ceremonies actually cure the sick.

       Similarly words are understood as containing that which they express.  So when a person speaks of a certain animal or tree, that animal or tree is spiritually present in the sound of its name  and when a story is told, the events of the story are being re-enacted in the life of the speaker and hearers.  Thus native Americans generally use words with great care, and their speech is typically slow and ponderous.

       The same fusion of symbol and reality is found in native American art.  If animals and trees are painted on flattened bark, then those animals and trees become present - and the bark and the pigments are treated as sacred objects.  If figures are carved onto rocks, then the figures in a spiritual sense mes to life - and the rock is treated as holy.

       Time is regarded as cyclical.  Each generation sees itself as repeating the life of the previous generation, without seeking to change or improve its situation - just as each year repeats the seasons of the previous year.  And when the native Americans finally accepted the dominance of the white settlers, they saw this as part of the natural cycle in which each tribe and race enjoys an occasional - but passing - period of power.


       We have been taught to believe in progress: that each generation can and should enjoy a better life than the previous generation; and that we personally, through the course of our careers, should move from a lower position in a society to a higher one.  We have also been taught that progress is achieved primarily through science and technology, by which humanity achieves greater and greater mastery of nature.

       The native Americans challenge us to question that faith.  They teach us to regard ourselves as part of the natural order, not as masters of it.  They warn us that, if we behave as masters of nature, we shall destroy it.  And they tell us to look to the past for guidance as to how to live now and in the future.

       They also challenge our attitude to the place in which we live.  We may expect to move several times in the course of our lives, and to die a great distance from where we were born.  The native Americans urge us to cherish the particular place in which we find ourselves - to regard it as gift from God - and therefore to move only with the greatest reluctance.

Source: An excerpt from the Book on "366 Readings from World Religions" by Robert Van De Weyer.