Monday, February 19, 2007

In the Circle of the Spirit

Navajo and Tibetan Wisdom Paths to Humane Being

Entering the Circle

They were the heady 1980’s and 90’s, a time of prosperity and seemingly infinite possibilities. In those years I rarely found myself stateside. I was residing mainly in Himalayan India, Nepal and Tibet along with sojourns among Tibeto-Burman hilltribes in southeast Asia. When back in America, I would more likely than not find myself on Indian lands in Arizona and New Mexico.

During the majority of those decades, I was living in realities which were radically divergent from that of my natal culture. Navajo Indians and Tibetans shared basic ways of thinking, expressing and living which were much closer to one another than to those of mainstream Americans.

Their common ground derived from their enshrining essential lessons in living from out of their long pasts. Historical narratives told of bygone times during which many of their versions of today’s basic challenges had been engaged and surmounted. These provided their ancestors guidance in negotiating the pitfalls of the human condition. Whereas the modern nation state of America has forgotten the lessons of its past, Tibetans and Navajos remember theirs and heed them still.

Living for many years on the Navajo Indian Reservation has immersed me daily in the Navajo vision of the Good. It describes a personal journey into a state of cosmic equipoise, which the Navajo call Beauty.

Tibetans likewise aspire to merge with the substance and vastness of the cosmos, without and within. Their way to the Good is through developing an illumined mind and expansive heart on successive lifetime journeys into Buddhahood.

Since both deeply honor meaningful visions of themselves in the world and ways of fully living in it, I decided about twenty years ago to write a book describing their common ground.

In the course of writing Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit, I pondered four wisdom ways that are central to Tibetans and Navajos, and are shared by all harmonized peoples of the world in various guises. Likewise, in their absence, they speak volumes about our Western society’s currently unwholesome condition of dis-harmony, dis-ease.

Navajo ideals for living are founded on the Beauty Way, which recognizes one’s deepest relationship with all beings and with the world. It honors the path and goal of “attaining a ripe old age founded on the harmony of universal beauty.“ The Navajos invoke this quest by the often heard spiritual phrase, Sa’ah Naghai Bik’eh Hozho. This accounts for the beautific character so obvious in the faces of traditional Navajo elders.

Just now, as I write these words, the beautiful face of an elderly Tibetan appears to my mind’s eye. Tibetans likewise lead their lives on the rock solid road of their Buddhist tradition, and it is reflected in their beautiful personal presence.

Tibetans enter into reciprocity with their phenomenal universe using the daily greeting: Tashi Deley. It references “a long and consummated life in auspicious relationship with the universe.” Holding such an aspiration, Tibetans journey beyond the sufferings of this life and future rebirths.

Adding to this aboriginal ideal, the Tibetan Buddhist path leads into the abiding realms of cosmic emptiness beyond materiality and into illumined heart. These goals are expressed in another everyday expression, Om Mani Padme Hum. It references the arising jewel-like compassionate mind of enlightenment (mani) in the lotus-like matrix of the cosmos (padme).

These descriptions naturally lead to the question regarding what happens when a cultural ideology and social system deny such an integrative worldview and ethos in living. What can be said, therefore, about our own modern cultural vision of self, community and cosmos?

As it now stands, our sense of place and purpose has lost its innate wholeness to a fractured conglomeration of legalistic pronouncements and god-centered commandments. Although the arcane mystery schools of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions of monotheism hold basic teachings and practices in parallel with the Navajos and Tibetans, they are hardly holographically present nor readily reduced to practice in daily living, as they are among the Tibetans and Navajos.

Perhaps through the example of the Navajos and Tibetans, we yet can find inspiration to go forward with the restoration of the good and wholesome in our lives.

Teachings of the Circle of the Spirit

Many observers have remarked upon the similarities between Navajo and Tibetan ideals, arts and ways of living. While a historical connection between the two is not likely proveable, they do share in common certain universals in spiritual philosophy and practice which suggest a relationship at the level of the collective unconscious.

These similarities are particularly evident in the mandala-like sand paintings common to both cultures and their ideas about matter and spirit. Extensive parallels exist among many aspects of both cultures, including their creation teachings, cosmology, sacred geography, psychology, visionary arts, and healing and initiation procedures. And they provide powerful inspiration for us to reconsider our own cultural paradigm and to recover a healthful sense of sacred wholeness in our lives.

What are the tenets and practices that find common ground in the distinctive wisdom traditions of the Tibetans and Navajos?

To answer this, I set out in my book four universals shared by these two amazing traditions. The first three are principles or common visions of self and reality, while the fourth is the path for integrating the three understandings into one’s self and experience of daily living.

I call the first principle in the Navajo and Tibetan Circle of the Spirit: Awakening and Connecting to the Nature of Things.

It asks several questions of the wisdom seeker: how did the world come about and what is the fundamental nature of this world? Also, how did humanity come about and how are we a part of it all?

The Western worldview holds answers to these questions but they mainly lie on the surface of things, in the material realm of inquiry.

In terms of world origination, Tibetans and Navajos recognize megacycles of creation and disintegration. As in the cycle of the seasons, so too in the cycle of worlds, which go through their own natural phases. This understanding contrasts markedly with the monotheistic, which posits the fabricating of a single world by an all powerful but abstracted creator god. And this latter world is alive only in its animal life, with human beings standing in dominion above all other living things.

In Navajo and Tibetan intellectual cultures, the outer, material realm is alive and vital on many levels. All beings (no distinction is made between animate and inanimate) are interconnected in responsible relationship through sharing the same innate characteristics and potential. This makes for a more encompassing and richer realm of thought and experience than our own.

Both traditions consider the inner reality of things as consisting of life force wind and the awareness of mind. Interestingly, in the farther-reaching frontier understandings of quantum physics – David Bohm’s work in particular – similar understandings of the interpenetration of matter, energy and meaning are being explored. And it is probably in this sphere of the new sciences that common ground will be found among the Western, the Eastern and the Indigenous.

I’ve entitled the Circle of the Spirit’s second principle: Balancing and Unifying Earth with Sky. Its fundamental questions include: how can we maintain personal balance amid the polar tendencies of life and thought? And, how can one find wholesome integration between the earth-grounded foundation of living and the sky-vast potential of mind and spirit?

Both cultures envision the idealized human being as if standing upon a mountaintop. The person is the interface between the stable foundation of the nurturing earth and the limitless inspiration and potential of the sky. Navajos and Tibetans recognize the need to balance at the fulcrum of life’s seesaw, which they call the Beauty Way and the Middle Way, respectively. In both wisdom systems, the path consists of an ongoing rebalancing act for getting oneself through life in a successful and harmonious manner.

By contrast, in the modern Western world we try unsuccessfully to build up rigid roadways for maintaining an unchanging state of mind and society. This creates a vision of the path through life being the “one right way,” as opposed to other “wrong ways” of thinking and living.

Where a Tibetan or Navajo would never consciously go to such extremes – such a posture is deeply troubling to them - the Westerner tends to envision going to extremes as the obvious solution to “righting a wrong.” The result is a life in constant upheaval, much like the rebounding ripples from a stone cast into a pond, creating interference patterns on the water’s surface. While there are always ripples in the flow of life, the former approach seeks to quiet them while the latter, unreflectingly, magnifies them.

Again, quantum understandings can help explain the veracity of this aspect of perennial wisdom. Quantum scientists have proven that the existence of extremes is illusory. They are but hypothetical aspects of the totality, which is always in a state of dynamic flux somewhere, indeterminately, in between.

Niels Bohr, considered to be the father of quantum mechanics, had placed on his family seal the Taoist yinyang symbol of the great way of balance, together with the saying: “contrary is complementary.” The phrase refers to the “complementarity” of subatomic states in quantum reality, where matter is composed simultaneously of particles and energy waves. While they are seemingly different (contrary to one another) they are, in fact, expressions of the same underlying reality. They are complementary expressions of the totality.

The third principle of the Circle of the Spirit is entitled: Centering in the Mandala of Self and Cosmos. The Hindu-Buddhist term, mandala, describes an idealized or enlightened state of being and knowing, generally encoded as a fourfold circle.

This principle engages such questions as: how can one find a stillpoint in the constantly moving reality of daily existence? And, what do the four quarters of the day, the seasons, and phases of one’s lifetime have to teach by analogy regarding harmonizing one’s inner and outer reality?

Navajos and Tibetans signify the totality of existence through mandalas, created in sand, pigment painting, sculpture, and even dance. These encode the balanced, idealized qualities of personal actions, creative expression and of mind, as models for personal reintegration. They are powerful psychophysical maps of our inner and outer realities from the point of view of the consummated person standing atop one’s sacred mountain at the mandala map’s center.

Taken together, the first three principles serve to describe an integrated and stabilized world vision of self in cosmos.

What are our modern equivalents to such psychophysical maps? Except for the symbol of the earth photographed from space by the Galileo satellite on its way to Jupiter, or perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of an encircled human, we have none. But once upon a time we did have many such visual guides to self in cosmos.

During the Renaissance, Hermetic alchemical mandalas were widely created. They depicted the relationship between the person and cosmos, together with the qualities and energies of the illumined adept of spiritual alchemy. Despite its deep meaning, the spiritual side of Hermetic alchemy together with its symbolic mandala imagery were rudely discarded. Only the physical, outer work of alchemy survived to become the basis of scientific chemistry and the experimental method.

The fourth quadrant of the Circle of the Spirit, entitled: Becoming: Sacred Rites of Transformation, examines how to put the first three principles into practice in one’s daily existence.

Tibetan and Navajo wisdomholders understand implicitly that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge accumulates; wisdom guides. They know that we must become initiated onto a path of wisdom, so that the person may be remade into wholeness, holiness. Life becomes a path to the goal of Beauty and Buddhahood based upon the three understandings described above.

The transformative procedures for becoming wise, whole, healthful and holy, are held closely by their practitioners as priviledged information, to be shared as appropriate to the person and purpose in each society. They are often couched in elaborate and colorful ceremonial events which allude to a deeper psychospiritual reality.

But Buddhahood and Beauty are meant to be embodied in daily living. So, once initiated upon the Beauty Way or Middle Way paths, life becomes itself the practice in perfection.

To embody these cherished goals is a tough task in modern life, where the grail of living lies mainly in personal success and material acquisition, and less so in spiritual development. Nowadays, even the spiritual dimension is out of balance within itself and practiced separately from daily life – such as at specified times on the weekend, as is the case in Western monotheistic creeds.

The first three wisdom principles must be present and active before the fragments of spirit and matter can be reunited. When science and the church took the body and soul of Western civilization as each their own, the proverbial fall from the Garden of Eden was recreated in a new era. Refinding the harmonious unity of matter and spirit is the real work of our age.

It would have been most fortunate for the modern millions to have been born into ready-made systems of equipoise - as have the Tibetans and Navajos. But they too are subject to the effects of our crazy, fragmented world vision. We are all in this together, but we in the West are in it far deeper.

Still, the prognosis is not fatal. We may yet find our way back to the garden of humane being should we choose to open the door to our current prison and walk out into the bright light of the Circle of the Spirit.

(Author autographed copies of Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom are available. For information on ordering:

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