contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: inspiration

AUTUMN EQUINOX 2020: HAZEL, SALMON, AWEN

In the outer circle of my mandala of the year (1), hazel presides over the days from 16 September to 8 October.

In the middle circle, divided into quarters, the one beginning at Lughnasadh/Lammas is represented by a salmon.

In the inner circle, where there is no sub-division, I have three seed pearls standing for the Awen. The Autumn Equinox is a time when images from the three layers of the mandala line up particularly well. (See NOTE below)

The lore and legend surrounding hazel have a stronger hold on me than the physical tree, though I do find hazels in my locality. For the ancient Celts, the tree was linked with wisdom and known as the food of the gods. Irish tradition (2,3) speaks of the sacred salmon who swim in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. This pool was known as Conla’s Well or the Well of Segais and it is the source of the River Boyne. When the trees drop their nuts into the water below, the salmon eats them and so carries them into the sea and back in their annual spawning run. “The cycle was seen as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from age to age and from person to person” (2). The ancient Druid temples of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are to be found in the Boyne Valley.

Ireland and Western Britain are watery places, well-located for intimations of wisdom in watery forms. In modern Druidry, circle work makes links between the west, water and autumn, understood as the quarter following Lughnasadh/Lammas. There are suggestions, too, of love and intuition flowing together in harmony. The Autumn Equinox stands at the point where the light half of the year gives way to the dark half – not suddenly, or violently, but as part of a gentle transition, where the qualities are more or less balanced on both sides of the divide. Tradition also gives us the image of the Well of Segais  as “a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it” (3). Here, the invitation, at least for ‘the folk of many arts’, is to drink from the five streams (the five senses) and from the fountain itself (the source of life). In a nutshell, our wisdom is best served by drawing on both the life of the senses and on the flow of inner inspiration (Awen). Neither needs to be sacrificed to the other.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

(3) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition London: Fireside, 1994 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

NOTE The two pictures below give a rough sense of the mandala, and of relationships at the Autumn Equinox, though not the way it looks as a mosaic in my innerworld. The tree images are taken from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). They stand in for the ones in my mandala, which are more naturalistic and sometimes involve more than one plant: hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west, yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west. The selection as a whole is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. The elemental images are from R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey.

AN ENGLISH SOPHIA

It is 1663, less than three years after the restoration of Charles II, together with his Lords and Bishops. There is a nocturnal meeting in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It is mostly attended by radical dissenters, politically defeated but staunch in their religion. The exception is the narrator, who holds a precarious position at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“All eyes in the place, every single person, were focused with extraordinary attention on a dim figure at the front, the only person standing, although as quiet as all the others … How long she had stood like that I do not know; perhaps from the moment she came in, which was now nearly half an hour; I do know that we all sat there for another ten minutes in the most perfect of silence; and a strange experience it was to be so very still and immobile with all others in equal quietude.

“….

“When she did utter, she spoke so softly and sweetly that her words were hard to hear; instead everyone there had to lean forward to catch what she was saying. All the words, set down on paper with my pen, give nothing of my mood, for she entranced us all, bewitched us even, until grown men were crying openly, and women were rocking themselves with expressions of angelic peace such as I have never seen in any church  … Her hands remained clasped in front of her and made no gestures; she scarcely moved at all, and yet out of her mouth and her whole body became balm and honey, freely offered to all …

“She spoke for well over an hour and it was like the finest consort of musicians, as the words flowed and turned and played over us until we too were like sounding boxes, vibrating and resonating with her speech. I have read these words over again. How much I disappoint myself, for the spirit is entirely lacking from them, nor have I in any way managed to encompass the perfect love she spoke, or the calm adoration she evoked in her listeners. I feel, indeed, like a man who wakes from sleep after a wondrously perfect dream, and writes it all down in a frenzy, then finds that all he has on the page are mere words bereft of feeling, as dry and unsatisfying as chaff when the corn is removed.

“’To all men I say, there are many roads which lead to my door; some broad and some narrow, some straight and some crooked, some flat and commodious while others are rough, and pitted with dangers. Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone.

“’I am the bride of the lamb and the lamb itself; neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord have come. I am the sweetness of the spirit and the honey of life. I will be in the grave with Christ and will rise after betrayal. In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil. I say, you wait for the kingdom of heaven, but you see it with your own eyes. It is here and always within your grasp. An end to religion and to sects, throw away your Bibles, they are needed no more: cast out tradition and hear my words instead. My grace and my peace and my mercy and my blessing are upon you.’

“The meeting was over, and it was obvious that the only reason it had assembled was to hear Sarah speak; in that town, and amongst those people, she had a reputation that had already spread far. The merest mention that she might make an utterance was enough to bring men and women – the poor, the rough and those of low breeding – out in all weathers and risk all manner of sanction from the authorities. Like everyone else, I scarcely knew what to do once it had finished, but eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise I must collect my horse and go back to Oxford. In a daze of the most complete peacefulness I walked back to the inn here I had left it and headed home.

“Sarah was a prophetess. Only a few hours earlier the notion would have elicited the utmost scorn from me, for the country had been benighted by such people for years, thrown into the light of day by the troubles in the way that woodlice become visible when a stone is overturned. … A woman prophet was much worse, you might think, even less likely to inspire anything but contempt, yet I have already shown it was not so. Is it not said that the Magdalene preached and converted, and was blessed for it? She was not condemned, nor ever has been, and I could not condemn Sarah either. It was clear to me that the finger of God had touched her forehead, for no devil or agent of Satan can reach into the hearts of men like that. There is always a bitterness in the devil’s gifts, and we know we are deceived, even if we permit the deception. But I could say for a moment only what it was in her words that conveyed such peace and tranquillity, I had the experience of it merely, not the understanding.”

Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost Vintage: 1998

NOTE

I believe that the extract stands on its own, as an imaginative depiction of a form of spiritual experience, individual and collective. However, I have written this note to provide more context and information, and then added a personal insight piece relevant to my own inquiry.

The historical novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is mostly set in the Oxford of the 1660’s, described as “a time and place of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment”. That being the case, it touches on the high politics of the transition from Commonwealth back to Monarchy; the foundation of the Royal Society and a more empirical approach to natural science and medicine; and the rise of new religious currents emphasising a direct relationship with the divine though ecstatic and intuitive means.

The central figure in the novel is Sarah Blundy, a young woman accused of murdering a fellow of New College. The novel is in four sections, each narrated by a male character whose testimony is unreliable to a greater or lesser extent. The one who describes the meeting above is relatively reliable. He also comes closest to Sarah, and her personally burdensome gifts of prophecy and healing.

Although the book has a concern with evidence and the meaning of evidence seen through a later seventeenth century lens, it also has an element of magical realism. Sarah follows a cycle of immaculate conception, a favourable upbringing, a fall into compromised circumstances, the perils of her vocation whilst working as a maid servant, arrest, trial, execution, resurrection and ascension. The last we hear of Sarah, when on a ship bound from Plymouth to New England is that “She simply disappeared one day in full daylight, and without any sound, as though she had been taken up bodily into the heavens”.

Two of the book’s narrators mention a second century Christian movement later declared heretical under the name of Montanism, as a model for Sarah. They specifically identify a doctrine declaring that “in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil and sins no more”. This person could be of any age or gender and would probably  be from a humble background. The movement was founded by three teachers, Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla and their name for themselves was ‘New Prophecy’. They had a literature of their own, later destroyed by the Catholic Church. One remaining fragment from Maximilla’s ‘Oracles’ says that Christ visited her in the form of a woman. A modern expert on Gnosticism, Nicola Denzey Lewis, suggests (1) that they were familiar with two works now recovered as part of the Nag Hammadi collection – Thunder, Perfect Mind and the Trimorphic Protennoia (=triple-formed first thought). Each affirms both a cosmic feminine principle and women’s spiritual leadership in the teeth of opposition and abuse. “The Thunder alludes in paradoxical language to a myth …where Sophia and Eve are the human and divine aspects of one feminine being”. Protennoia is a divine cosmic being (in effect, Sophia with an even more abstract name) who says, “I am the thought that dwells in the Light” She also says, ”I have come the second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them” – incarnating as a what some traditions would call a Christ Sophia, whereas on the first occasion she had come in her masculine form as a Christ Logos (2).

For anyone wanting to look into the re-emergence of similar currents in seventeenth century Protestant culture in England and elsewhere, Caitlin Matthews’ Sophia book (3) provides brief coverage in Chapter 14, The Woman Clothed with the Sun.

(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

(2) Tau Malachi Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006

(3) Caitlin Matthews Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2001 (Revised edition – original edition published by Mandala in 1991)

A PERSONAL INSIGHT

I have personal responses and insights about the Trimorphic Protennoia and its relevance, for me, to Sarah as prophet and Christ Sophia. This work is said to be in part a critique of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, (‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’). The Protennoia places thought before word, and asserts that this thought, the ‘thought that dwells in the light’ contains, and is contained within, every single sentient being in the cosmos. There is no possibility of complete alienation from it, though the illusion of it can be devastating enough. But for St. John, the light comes after the word and shines into a darkness. This light can only be found through the mediation of Jesus Christ. It’s a very different theology, with different implications..

When I read and re-read the account of Sarah’s meeting, I am held by its auditory metaphors, because they are themselves so tactile. I begin with a strong sense of how she builds on the silence and stillness already in the room. It is a fecund stillness and silence, a potent state of latency. She holds and extends this moment.

Then she becomes present with her voice. She is almost inaudible, in one sense. Yet she has the full attention of the meeting. The narrator is impressed by qualities of softness and sweetness and talks of being entranced without clearly hearing a single word. Sarah’s voice has a compelling energetic presence – a voice that is not just a voice but offers a fully embodied sharing. Sara’s utterance is like music, with the same emotional power. It releases that in each person which leans into her speech, and already understands what she is telling them. What is happening is not so much revelation as recollection.

Finally, we do hear the words, which for me are memorable and inspirational even in their plain meaning, without Sarah’s presence.  They are very challenging to followers like hers, being asked to let go of their bibles and religion, so soon after the world and the powers that be have decisively turned against them. Each must find their own path, and refrain from judging others. The message is at once emancipatory and frightening. It is not readily reassuring. The hope is that the experience which Sarah offers will trigger the recollection of their own divine spark, as an inner intuitive knowing, often occluded but never wholly extinguished. .

This story is what it is, and I find it very moving. It also helps me to make sense out of the very dry and obscurantist seeming term Trimorphic Protennoia,- as a three stepped creative movement, demonstrated in Sarah’s own ultimate being and through her ministry. This movement begins in a primordial alive silence becoming aware of itself, through the emergence of a full-bodied voice that connects, to simple, profound and inspirational speech. Each successive state contains the previous ones, and the whole is fully enacted, a true and fresh creation.

KAFKA’S ADVICE

You do not need to leave your room …

Remain sitting at your table and listen.

Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait,

be quite still and solitary. The world will freely

offer itself to you to be unmasked. it has no choice.

It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Franz Kafka. Quoted in: John Daido Loori The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life NY: Ballantine Books, 2005

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

I began my contemplative journey with a sense of mysticism, which I would now reframe as “attentiveness and wonder” (1). My path has become firmly this-worldly, a stance that has varied over the six years since I launched the inquiry, at a solo Samhain Druid ritual. The group practice that developed for contemplative Druidry was naturalistic from the beginning, finding the numinous within the mundane. The Buddhist sangha with which I am linked (2) is also world oriented. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of all that the earth contains, and a way of wisdom and compassion in every day life.

My path continues to be a contemplative inquiry. It is an inquiry, because I am in an open process of bringing my truth into being, a truth which remains provisional, agnostic, limited by my human horizons. Within this inquiry, contemplative methods both train the attention and open up spaces for wonder.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, initiator of the secular mindfulness movement, calls it ‘reverence’. For him this touches us when we are “transported by some marvelous strain of music, or when struck by the artistry of a great painting … I am speaking of the mystery of the very existence of an event or object, its ‘isness’. In the case of a work of art, even the artist can’t tell how it came about” (3). At such times, it is better leave words alone and allow our senses, and our feelings, to speak for themselves.

But Kabat-Zinn warns that, since we don’t have words for “ for such numinous and luminous feelings”, we often forget how prevalent they are in our experience. We can easily become inured to them and cease noticing that we even have such feelings or are capable of having them, so caught up we can be in a certain way of knowing to the exclusion of others.” (3). This provides one of my motivations for formal spiritual work (the others having to do with wisdom and compassion).  It helps to me to shake up the mindset that stops me from noticing. To speak of the results in an Existentialist’s language of ‘attentiveness and wonder’ works well for me, better than my older use of ‘mysticism’.

(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945 (first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962). Merleau-Ponty wrote in his preface: “Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing the truth into being. … It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valery or Cezanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or history as that meaning comes into being”.

(2) https://coiuk.org/

(3)Jon Kabat-Zinn Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion e-Book, 2005

AUTUMN DAY

Autumn day. Freshness after high winds and rain. Warm, but not like Summer. A soft, enlivening clarity. Simple pleasure in simple experiencing.

In this stream of awareness, it is as if I am possessed of a warm, lighthearted openness and wonder. For the world seems new and provisional, empty of explanations about anything. It is a magical day, with time stopped and infinite space for enjoyment.

I am describing my spiritual home, which I find so hard to identify within communities and movements, even the good ones. Days like this stabilize my sense of being at home and lacking nothing. They are a wonderful blessing.

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: MERLIN

Elen Sentier’s Merlin Once & Future Wizard is a marvel, highly recommended. The author effortlessly charms us into a fresh and extended understanding of Merlin, introducing us to a “huge, ancient, wise and powerful” being –  teacher, trickster and friend. For me, her introductory Who Is Merlin? chapter offers the best description of the essential Merlin I have ever read.

“Merlin is a liminal being. Liminal means a threshold, a place between past and future, between here and there, between one world and another … and he is always standing at that threshold. He is that place. And that ever-changing constant threshold is now, the here-and-now, and it’s constantly in motion like the sea”. Merlin teaches us, if we are willing, to “be continuously and consciously aware that you stand in the middle of change all the time, whatever is going on”. This is a lifelong learning. It cannot be hurried, and it cannot be branded or packaged.

Happily, however, it can be pointed towards, “if you can find someone who knows Merlin intimately and is willing to walk beside you on your journey to know him – and there are quite a few of us about if you look … You don’t feel alone, and they help you stop that nasty subliminal feeling that you really are nuts.”

Elen Sentier walks beside us to great effect. She has known Merlin since early childhood, when she joined the company of walkers-between-the-worlds, which means having a foot in the everyday world at the same time as having the other foot in the otherworld. She describes herself both as “an ordinary elderly woman” and an “awenydd”, or spirit-keeper in the old Brythonic tongue.

For readers who are new to Merlin, the book takes care to cover Merlin in history, stories and poetry – and even adds (for me at least) new material from the Welsh Marches in the chapter Pig Moor: Dyfrig, Ergyng and Mynydd Myrddin. But the greatest strength of Merlin Once & Future Wizard is the personal sharing interwoven with this traditional lore, showing how the author’s own relationship with Merlin has unfolded. At heart this book is a personal testament to a life lived under Merlin’s influence and inspiration. The effect is to give it added weight and authenticity, supported rather than undermined by an informal and chatty style.

Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard: Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

ONCE AND FUTURE WIZARD

I first encountered Merlin when I was nine years old, through T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. It includes a wonderful account of shape-shifting and indeed of education (as imaginative, experiential, self-reliant). As time went on I didn’t exactly get Arthur, the Wart’s, education. But I got enough to feed both memory and hope as enhancements of here-and-now experience rather than distractions from it. I didn’t forget, or if so, not completely. Thanks to Elen Sentier for reminding me in her recent book, which I plan to review soon.

“The thunder-clouds which usually go with hot weather were there, high columns of cumulus with glaring edges, but there was not going to be any thunder. It was too hot even for that. ‘If only’, thought the Wart, ‘I did not have to go into a stuffy classroom, but could take off my clothes and swim in the moat’.

“They crossed the courtyard, having almost to take deep breaths before they darted across it, as if they were going quickly through an oven. The shade of the gatehouse was cool, but the barbican, with its close walls, was hottest of all. In one last dash across the desert they had reached the drawbridge – could Merlyn have guessed what he was thinking? – and were staring down into the moat.

“It was the season of water-lilies. If Sir Ector had not kept one section free of them for the boys’ bathing, all the water would have been covered. As it was, about twenty yards on each side of the bridge were cut each year, and one could dive in from the bridge itself. The moat was deep. It was used as a stew, so that the inhabitants of the castle could have fish on Fridays, and for this reason the architects had been careful not to let the drains and sewers run into it. It was stocked with fish every year.

“’I wish I was a fish’, said the Wart

“’What sort of fish?’

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“’I think I should like to be a perch,’ he said. ‘They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”

“Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, ‘snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?’

“Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown a hundred times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

“’Oh, Merlyn,’ he cried, ‘please come too.’

“’For this once,’ said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, ‘I will come but in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.’”

(1) T. H. White The sword in the stone Volume 1 of The once and future King London: Collins, 1958

(2) Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

 

GUANYIN 1940

Childhood inspiration in a traditional Chinese Buddhist setting ….

“My early sense of spirituality was also derived from my mother. She was a member of the local Guanyin Society, twenty or thirty women who met three times a year to chant to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of the Great Compassion, who hears and responds to the cries of all living beings. Most of the women, like my mother, could not read, so they just chanted simple prayers in a melodic drone.

“The women wanted me as part of the group because there was a common belief in China that children – pure of mind and unsullied by unwholesome thoughts such as greed – have a clearer connection to the life of the spirit than adults. But I also think that in subtle and unconscious ways my mother wanted me to chant because she was directing me toward a spiritual life.

I’d chant – a scrawny, sticklike kid among the sturdy peasant women in their padded jackets and pants, who laughed at my bumbling attempts to follow along. We met in different women’s living rooms by night, our activities lit by an oil lamp, sitting on wooden benches around a rough wood table. In the center of the table was a statue of Guanyin, in front of which we placed offerings of incense, fruit and candles.

“The women’s laughter was indulgent and spurred me on. I chanted with great energy. I grew to love chanting and would often chant on my own while doing chores or walking. I don’t think it is an accident that later in life, when I became a monk, a core part of my practice involved prostrations to the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. I believe that it is because of good karma in previous lives that I started chanting Guanyin’s name as a child. The karmic connection with Guanyin continues to this day. It is the foundation of everything I do.”

Chan Master Shen Yeng Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Buddhist Monk New York: Doubleday, 2008

Shen Yeng was born in 1930 and grew up by the shores of the Yangzi River. He was the last of six children in a poor rural family, but got the chance to enter a Buddhist monastery in his early teens. It was a time of civil war and Japanese occupation in much of the country.

In 1949 he was a monk in Shanghai and. along with other young monks, pragmatically recruited into the fleeing Nationalist Army as a means of reaching the safety (for a Buddhist monk) of Taiwan. He was not to see any of his family again until 1988. By this time both his parents were dead but he met up with an older brother, who had news of them and other family members.

On his discharge from the military in 1960 he resumed his life as a monk, became a well-known figure in Taiwanese Chan Buddhism, studying also with Zen practitioners for a period in Japan. Invited to teach in the U.S. in the mid 1970’s, eventually establishing a base for the ‘Western Chan’ in New York. From this beginning the Friends of the Western Chan, where people don’t necessarily have to become Buddhist to benefit from Chan teaching, have become established in several English speaking countries.

WORD POWER

“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data.   I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”

The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.

I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’  (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.

Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people.    A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”

Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.

Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.

The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.

All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.

But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos,  is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.

The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.

Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”

(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.

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