Thursday, June 26, 2014

Local Spirits and Magical Reform

Artifacts of early peoples in the Americas are common in the Western United States. You can be wandering among the rocks, and suddenly find yourself walking on the remnants of ancient pottery. The great pity is, despite an absolute richness of archaeological evidence all around us, nobody pays our prehistory any mind. If you are a young person, looking for something worthwhile to do, come out to these deserts and mountains, and study the archaeology of these lands. You will learn more truth in the process than you would in a monastery, and you won't even have to learn "Buddhism" to understand you are obligated to get on your way to becoming a molecule in Maitreya.

Or, as in my own case, you can merely exercise no-account, passing interest in the things you find as you stumble around. Thus it happened, I was examining two pottery sherds yesterday: Holbrook Black-on-White, from circa 1050 to 1150 CE. 

Mind habitually wandering, as I held them in my hands, the following thoughts rather unaccountably came to me:

The pantheon of our ancestors, if not that of their collective, tale-told innermosts, or the magnetic harmony of shamans all over this planet, is ubiquitously inhabited by that logical class of spirits known as "local" spirits. The various spirits of a place. 

The dance of elements in subtle-meets-gross mystery and splendor, invested by mind-as-appearance, into appearance-as-mind.

If we wanted to come up with a universal typology of said spirits, I suppose we could. Nobody has managed yet - save the shamans - so we have complete spirit pantheons littered around space like galaxies, all the way down to complete spirit pantheons inhabiting the backyard. A cultural thing. A social thing. A human thing. A spirit pantheon thing.

There are the traditional call-outs of our shared belief system.  Generally speaking, we refer to these as protecting spirits, harming spirits, and/or obstructing spirits. You can find local spirits among each category.

If we just wanted to look around for ourselves, we could find spirits associated with land formations, or appearances of rocks, and so forth; spirits associated with trees, and plants; spirits associated with unique properties of a place, such as a healing mineral in abundance or a history of illness; spirits associated with known and unknown events, such as ancient battlegrounds; fundamental spirits, such as those of earth, or water; spirits of human visitation upon said fundamental spirits, such as earthworks, dams, roads, and bridges; visiting spirits, wandering spirits, traveling spirits, sly spirits, and furtive spirits; spirits of nests, ant-hills and animal burrows. These things just jump to mind. You know, the list is long, long, long. 

These spirits speak to us from prehistory, across hundreds of thousands of years. We know them like we know fire. Deep within ourselves, we believe in them whether we believe in them or not. We know they warm. We know they nourish. We know they burn. We don't have to touch them.

Nobody will disagree that high deserts, mountain passes, lonely rocks and trees, endless valleys, wild canyons, and twisted gorges are the locus of many a ritual offering: tangled strings of flags, inviting sounds of drums and welcoming bells, clouds of juniper smoke. 

Chants in this language or that language. The language we chant is not the language of their response. The chants are symbols, bridges, and sign-posts, of and to real languages of earth and sky, becoming recognized as mantra in the end.

The language of spirits is the language of their experience. 

Endless prayers are uttered: summoning, serving, admonishing, sealing, and dismissing local spirits by their local names. Here are grains, tormas, whiskey, nectar: offerings felt as somehow more or less imaginary than others -- this terrible compulsion we have to endlessly replicate the divisions that cause and condition a bewildering, grinding, time-infected wheel.

We startle at shadows and in consequence learn nothing of light's fullest possibilities.


Since the mid-twentieth century -- a period encompassing my own lifetime -- truly gifted magicians have been in the Americas, teaching unfamiliar but thoroughly sound practices; yet, they are often invoking local spirits from far, far away.

Rather an interesting subject, wouldn't you say?

The subject even occupied the generosity of the late Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, who remarked that North American local spirits require their own lexicon, and improved ritual.

He also used to spend a lot of time in this desert.

How do we apply Tibetan ritual to local spirits in the Americas, where the indigenous rituals applied to local spirits predate Buddhist Tibetan culture by centuries? To what extent are American rituals congruent with Bon? Are there, in fact, any antagonisms, differences, or polemics we need take up? Need we establish a rationale behind Dzogchen practitioners walking around riverbank and rise, looking at rocks, petroglyphs, and the way ravens fly? Are we supposed to be archaeologists? Anthropologists? Is such a rationale necessary? 

So, here I will muse about whether any sort of convenient, literary analogy between magicians of the "ancient ones" of North America, as identified within the Patayan cultural division -- the spirit terrain here where I live -- and the magicians of Tibet's "ancient ones," known as the Nyingmapa, is valid, apt analogy. 

I want to explain that both "Patayan," and "Nyingmapa," can translate as "Ancient Ones." The name Patayan is used in this sense by later Native American societies in reference to their spiritual and cultural ancestors.
By the way, I used to feel uncomfortable using the term "magician," until one afternoon I listened to the Dalai Lama discuss a particular lineage. He was going name by name, and he would say, "Oh, this one was a realized practitioner," or, "this other one was a great magician," and then, "another one was a great magician and a realized practitioner." 
A statement like that gives magicians ample reason to thoroughly re-examine appearances. 
No real mention is made by the traveling magicians from Tibet of long-identified American local spirits, beyond a generic nod to "spirits of the place," "landlord spirits," "local ghosts," etc. Perhaps we should be grateful that we are not faced with the endlessly interesting named spirits of Tibet; at least not unless we choose to be. 

Still, it is the business of magicians to examine these things, so we might plead for more care, study, and communion with the spirit classes of our lands.  Maybe we are culturally chauvinistic that way.

Lacking such exploration, it is certain that we, in our ignorance, have harmed and may even continue to harm those who inhabit trees, rocks, caves, and singular features of the environment having atavistic resonance. What of our offerings, for example? Do they replicate the offerings of another, far-away place, or do we use the indigenous offerings of our own place?

Maybe we are dense, culturally chauvinistic, xenophobic, environmentally sensitive, and locally sourcing all at the same time. 

So, then - 

Rest easy. Above is only the hope and fear-based interpretation. Humans speak hope-fear with a web of dialects. The webless way to communicate is openly, with love. When you love, you are careful. You love diligently, and take pains to dissolve distance. The web explodes. The intangible threads are still there, but they are traveling away from each other at light speed. Boundaries collapse, and you are free. Kindness takes over naturally. Maybe things become amusing.

Recognize that what you are loving is spontaneous display.

To recognize local spirits, love where you live. 

We are Buddhist, so we do our best to love like that.

Or, now --

Let me put it this way...

There is a sculptor in my backyard. The tools are time, wind, water, and trembling earth. They sculpt what they will. Whatever I think I see is whatever I think I see, and what I think I see is not what I see.

I just sit there until direct experience informs mind it has stopped making kaleidoscopic divisions.

* * * 

Somewhere around 9550 - 8050 BCE, ancient ones came to inhabit the place where I live. By the time Padmasambhava visited Tibet, America's magicians had already lived through centuries as respected lords in complex, temple cities, with the enormous patronage of inquisitive, theocratic monarchs. 

To this day, artifacts of them that pre-date Padmasambhava's journey to Samye are littered all over the West.

Not only North America, but Central and South America, as well. 

Funerary Model
Western Mexico Shaft Tomb culture, 300 BCE - 400 CE

Funerary Model
Han Dynasty 202 BCE - 220 CE

Once upon a time, people all over the world made clay houses with singular pigments - colored earth models - to take with them to the tomb. Seems to be a universal state at the time. We don't know this: we infer this. So, we as international humans arrived at a general agreement amongst ourselves that we need place clay models in tombs. Now, we as international humans try to agree upon what we agreed upon. Such is the manufacture of history.

Maybe it it is neither simple nor useful to let the hypothetical past inform the hypothetical present. Maybe we should just play it as it lays.

What is the difference, for example, between Jigme Lingpa's references to "soul stones," and the "cuya," or soul stones of the Quechua-Incan answer to the Kalachakratantra? Universal knowledge of soul stones may be coming from the same place as model houses of clay. Is this a reflection of universal spiritual development of the time?

Maybe Latin America is the mother of this world. I know some lamas who think so.

Alright, then -- and in conclusion --

Do we reform the ritual texts to the point of xenophobia? Or, do we adopt the broad view and say that it doesn't matter what we do at all?

The local spirits can hear our hearts.

If you really believe this, and if you can really do this, then it is great.

Otherwise, once upon a time, a long, long time ago, somebody was making pottery in the Mojave Desert and somebody else was introducing the Kalachakratantra to Tibet, and they both loved the earth the same way at the same time in different places. 

Somehow, fragments of that pottery crossed the centuries, and came to my hand. These are broken, unconnected pieces. I can try to learn as much as I can. I can make inferences. I can enjoy the benefit of scientific instruments. I can classify them. I can also appreciate them as prehistoric messages from mankind to mankind, made from clay, carbon, and fire.

Where I am, on the 2014 Summer Solstice, ancient symbols danced across the sky, disguised as clouds, and the light hit the rocks a certain way. They began to whisper. I began to listen.

That is a rationale. Maybe it is not "the" rationale, but it is a rationale nonetheless. If a thing is helpful, use it, and if not, discard it. Don't worry what the books, or the people, or the rocks, or the clouds have to say.

Consider finding the listener, instead.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

BREAKING: Sharmar Rinpoche Dies

Well informed sources are now reporting that the 14th Sharmapa has passed away. He suffered a massive heart attack during breakfast, went into cardiac arrest, and paramedics were unable to revive him at the scene. Details here.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Since You Asked

Our trustworthy and well-beloved Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar is, as you have undoubtedly gathered, moribund. Still, there are over 2,000 different articles herein, and thousands of illustrations. One simply uses the search box at right, to search for specifics; or, one browses here and there according to whim.

There is also, as we now announce a new, miniscule, Facebook page, where you are more likely to find us these days. 

This blog began eight years ago, as an exercise in personal, digital journaling. It then, quite unintentionally, morphed into digital journalism. We became the "biggest Buddhist blog," with an average daily readership of 1,400,000 unique views. 

Now, that river is a trickle: almost dry. 

While the river was running, we tried to do everyone a bit of good. The mere favorable mention of a book, for example, would cause Amazon to sell out of that book within an hour. If we jumped on a story, other media would follow us. The mention of an event would invariably increase attendance at said event. When we rang the gong of public debate, public debate came forth. We helped make First Amendment case law. We made people angry, we made people happy, we made people question, and we made people think.

We made a difference.

Speaking personally, since early 2012, I have been transitioning from Blogger to Facebook. The latter forum is, I believe, better suited to the immediacy I had envisioned for Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar as a journalistic exercise. I deliberately made no attempt to link between the two, beyond experimentally linking blog posts to the Facebook page, which is where you can find us from now on. I like Facebook because it is easy to use, and it allows the reader to become directly involved. With a blog, feedback is never all that simple to manage.

So, then.

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