Monday, June 4, 2007

Way to the Garden

A strong scent of religion is permeating our sensory, expressive and mental environments. People are searching for the peace, solace and understanding that a spiritual path can provide. And in today’s world there are two religio-spiritual systems from which to choose.

The first envisions an attainable Eden-like Garden composed of this world’s life forms and experiences. The other, which claims closest ties to the Garden of Eden and human salvation, leads in an entirely opposite direction away from potential “gardenhood.”

Since their progenitors’ banishment from the Garden of Eden, practitioners of the latter, one-god system have striven to reconnect with a cosmic mind and power abiding beyond their personal worlds. Their system describes itself by a derivative of the Latin term, religare, implying: re-linking to the sacred.

But the word, religion is absent in the terminology of the former, non-Western spiritual systems. Relinking to external holiness is considered unnecessary in these traditions, as life itself is a religious practice in holiness. The potentially illumined, body-soul-spirit complex within each person simply awaits cleansing and perfecting to reveal its ligare to the sacred.

The way of religion is causally connected to the chaos in our lives by its general inability to provide succor and insight into our suffering. Its path leads away from its own holy garden. There’s a bitter cosmic irony at play here. The invasion of Iraq, Old Mesopotamia, has unknowingly brought the modern day Babylon, which is America, back to the proverbial site of the original Garden of Eden and to the place of origin of the West’s monotheistic religions.

The other spiritual way is preserved by indigenous and non-monotheistic peoples in the face of their current sufferings. Indeed, much of their difficulties has been at the hands of peoples who had not yet found their innate connection to the sacred. Instead, the conquerors co-opted the sacred, in justification of acts against which even their own biblico-koranic religions clearly caution.

As one example of the ancient spiritual way, consider the tenets and practices of Buddhism. A non-theistic system of spiritual thinking, expressing and living, focusing on the dynamics and solutions to suffering and on seeing reality for what it is, Buddhism is a well-tested antidote to national chaos and personal suffering.

Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere likewise have managed to preserve their integrated cultural and spiritual systems after what was without question the greatest holocaust of human history. That Native American (and other world indigenous) peoples have managed to maintain and even expand in recent decades, testifies to the pragmatic effectiveness of their ways to wisdom-in-living.

Underpinning the spiritual systems of indigenous and anciently-oriented peoples are two complementary processes. They were described to me several years ago by Gary Snyder, America’s dear poet-philosopher in matters of spirit and environment. We had been discussing the differences between Zen and Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism. Zen is practiced by many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese; and Vajrayana, by Tibetans, Nepalis and Mongolians (along with some Chinese, Koreans and Japanese).

Gary had observed that:

“In Zen, you go down quickly but come up slowly;
in Vajrayana, you go down slowly then come up quickly.
But both get you there all the same.”

Perhaps you already understand what Gary meant. But permit me to explain my understanding of his words.

Zen is of a Buddhist lineage in what Tibetans call the Yogacharya tradition. Yogacharya refers to a demanding mental practice of meditating directly on emptiness, dispelling the delusion that reality is solely material and sensate. By achieving a mental state of non-duality between the sourceground and the perceived, one gains an enlightened perspective beyond the ordinary, blunted state of mind that perceives the sensory world as being “real.”

Through exceptional discipline of mind and body, the practitioner of Zen is trained to cut through the conventional state of awareness and enter into samadhi, stable meditative clarity. In this clear-minded state one sees through and beyond the constraints of the material, to understand that the ground of mind and reality is pristine, vast and empty of the permanence and tyranny of hardened concepts and forms.

In the Zen tradition, as in others that evoke the creative emptiness of being, the practitioner “goes down quickly” to experience glimpses of the primordial ground within (which also exists everywhere). Once tasted, this sudden “eureka! moment” of clarity and insight (satori in Japanese) must be stabilized and held firmly in mind. So, it must be constantly revisited, recomprehended and restabilized – which is a slow-going and disciplined lifetime practice. In Zen, one goes down quickly to the primordiality of things and thoughts, but comes up into understanding and realization slowly and methodically.

In the Vajrayana, the Sanskrit term for the Tantric Buddhist tradition, one likewise goes down to the primordial ground. But this is accomplished slowly and methodically through programmed and vividly-beheld meditations.

The meditations dissolve one’s uncontrolled attachment to the material and the sensual by carefully harnessing ideal forms of the material and the sensual. These icons become powerful metaphors to the creative emptiness and universal connectedness at the primordial ground.

Tibetan Buddhism’s tantric art is permeated by shiningly colorful imagery and sounds. They are agreed-upon, anthropomorphized projections of ideal mental, creative and physical states of being – inevitably mistaken by monotheists to be “polytheistic” gods.

But meditative buddhas are at their basis empty of actual physicality. Rather, they are subtle mentally-generated signposts pointing toward our own better selves, which already exist in tarnished potential within each human being. Our inner, better selves need then to be transformed into their shining buddha-natures - their enlightened “un-selves.”

For those born into Tibetan Buddhism or who have made it their spiritual path, there is a natural attraction to all the shine and powerful imagery. But at the foundation of the alluring forms is the sourceground of emptiness – the formlessness from which all forms, by default, arise.

In seeking this foundational state of emptiness over the bridge of meditation spanning the river of consciousness and linking the banks of matter and spirit, the tantric Buddhist “goes down slowly,” methodically, to the primordial ground. Abiding there in a stable mental manner, one eventually “gets it” by way of a “eureka! moment,” not unlike that in Zen.

Then, the the practitioner “comes up quickly,” returning into this ordinary, confused reality with new eyes and understanding. The process is likened to that of a shining jewel arising out of the unfolding petals of a glorious lotus blossom, which itself had issued from the dark muck at the bottom of the pond.

The Zen-like way of quickly finding the empty, “unground of being” then returning slowly into understanding but at a higher level, is the way of many diverse peoples of the world, ranging from the Japanese to the Lakota Siouan Indians of North America.

The Lakota people place themselves deeply and valiantly into the midst of their cosmic sourceground, the heart of the Great Mystery, which is beyond comprehension and form but full of power to create thought, life and matter. They do so by fasting on mountaintops over the course of many days, in quest of a sacred vision for guiding them through life. And they engage in communal self sacrifice to the Great Mystery, also over the course of many days, via the Sun Dance tradition.

Visions and realizations abound when one gives the gift of the smaller self and receives the empowered spiritual self back from the source and totality of things, which is the Great Mystery. Similarly, one gives up the daily self for the bliss and direct meditative experience of the “un-self” in the abiding state of emptiness, called the Void in Zen and Tantric Buddhism.

In a manner parallel with Tantric Buddhism, similar wisdom ways enrich other peoples worldwide. Navajo Indians, for example, see the basis of the phenomenal world in an all creative, pervasive and harmonious state of dynamic holiness, which they call Beauty.

From Beauty - by way of the union of its first creations, Earth and Sky - come all manifest forms, life energies and ideals of mind in the guise of natural phenomena and transcendent divinities called “Holy People.” All are sacred to the Navajo. As spiritual embodiments of voice (the creative lifeforce energy) and mind (the clear spiritual thought), they are revered and given appropriate physical forms and qualities. They are incarnations of the sacred within all things.

For Tantric Buddhist practitioners, their meditative buddhas are appreciated as projections of one’s innate potential and cures to suffering. Some are pacific and nurturing of life-affirming, inner qualities of the meditator. Others are forceful in character, conveying powerful spiritual practices for transmuting the practitioner’s primordial ignorance into enlightened mind.

“But,” as Gary observed, “both ways get you there all the same.”

By the example of the pragmatic spiritual paths of the ancient and indigenous East and West, we yet may find our way back to the Garden. But for those who literally await an external agent to show them the way, the way to the Garden may continue to remain hidden from view.

“We are stardust, billion year-old carbon;
We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain;
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”
- Joni Mitchell, Woodstock -

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