contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tao

GARY SNYDER: ‘WILD’

“The word wild is like a grey fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of site. Up close, first glance, it is ‘wild’ – then further into the woods next glance it’s ‘wyld’ and it recedes and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Tuetonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Tuetonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage) and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s ‘awful ferity’ shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly

Of plants – not cultivated

Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated

Of foodcrops – produced or yielded without cultivation

Of societies – uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government

Of individuals – unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”, 1614

Of behavior – violent, destructive, cruel, unruly

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild” – John Milton

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what – from a human standpoint – it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what is is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living in natural systems

Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities

Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of non-human forces. Pristine.

Of foodcrops – food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit and seeds

Of societies – societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist political and economic domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem

Of individuals – following local custom, style and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent

Of behavior – freely resisting any oppression, confinement or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, ‘bad’, admirable.

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic

Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases, we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.”

Gary Snyder The Practice of the Wild Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990

In a preface to the 2010 edition, Gary Snyder describes his path as “a kind of old time Buddhism which remains connected to animist and shamanist roots. Respect for all living beings is a basic part of that tradition. I have tried to teach others to meditate and enter into the wild areas of the mind. … Even language can be seen as a wild system”.

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

SELF AND FULLNESS

In my last post, I discussed an understanding of ‘self’ that draws of the work of Piero Ferrucci *. The same author offers a practice called self-identification. Whilst having similarities with practices from some eastern traditions and their derivatives, this western, Sophian, approach, has a loyalty to human personhood, avoiding the potentially dissociative doctrines of no-self or a purely transcendent ‘I AM’.

Ferrucci says: “the self is the part of us that can watch any content of the psyche without getting caught up in its atmosphere.” The idea is simply to dis-identify from the contents of consciousness and identify with consciousness itself.

SELF-IDENTIFICATION PRACTICE

  1. Become aware of your body

For some time just notice in a neutral way – and without trying to change them – all the physical sensations you can be conscious of: e.g. contact of your body with the chair you are sitting on, your feet with the ground, of your clothes with your skin. Be aware of your breathing.

When you have explored your physical sensations long enough, leave them and go on to the next step.

  1. Become aware of your feelings

What feeling are you experiencing right now? And what are the main feelings you experience recurrently in your life? Consider both the apparently positive and negative ones: love and irritation; jealousy and tenderness; depression and elation … Do not judge. Just view your usual feelings with the objective attitude of a scientific investigatory taking an inventory.

When you are satisfied, shift your attention from this area to the next step.

  1. Turn your attention to your desires

Adopting the same impartial attitude as before, review the main desires which take turns in motivating your life. Often you may well be identified with one or the other of these, but now you simply consider them, side by side.

Finally, leave your desires and continue with the next step.

  1. Observe the world of your thoughts

As soon as a thought emerges, watch it until another one takes its place, then another one, and so on. If you think that you are not having any thoughts, realize that this too is a thought. Watch your stream of consciousness as it flows by: memories, opinions, nonsense, arguments, images.

Do this for a couple of minutes, then dismiss this realm as well from observation.

  1. The observer – the one who has been watching your sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts – is not the same as the object it observes. Who is it that has been observing all these realms? It is your self. It is not an image or a thought; it is that essence which has been observing all these realms and yet is distinct from all of them. And you are that being. Say inwardly: ‘I am the self, a centre of pure consciousness’.

Seek to realize this for about two minutes.

In this definition,  ‘the self’ is our underlying experience of  “crystal clear, limpid consciousness”. Learning to elicit the experience in full may take a while, but we are that self all the time. Experiencing the self does not mean blotting out all the other contents of consciousness. Feelings and thoughts may still be coming and going, but now they are in the background of awareness. While the self is by definition pure inner silence, it does not necessarily take us away from our everyday moods and activities. On the contrary, “it can increasingly manifest an effective presence and self-reliance. in daily life”.

Further possibilities unfold as we increase our self-awareness in this sense. Ferrucci says that as pure consciousness gains in clarity and fullness, we “make a direct approach to the creative vitality at the very source of our being”. The ways in which people describe this vary with time and place, language and culture. In ancient China, philosophers spoke of the Tao, whilst warning against attempts to define it. In the Pagan Roman Empire, Plotinus described an experience that seemed “unbounded” and “totally immeasurable”. A millennium later in Christian England, Julian of Norwich wrote: “Our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart, and I saw the soul was as wide as if it were an infinite world, as if it were a blessed kingdom.”

In my own experience, I have for quite a while had a sense of being ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. The ‘emptiness’ of pure consciousness becomes a ‘fullness’. I profoundly belong. I am energetically alive. I sense freedom and capacity. I feel distinctive within a larger field, yet with fluid and porous boundaries. I am opened to I-Thou relationship and the possibility of reciprocal recognition, personhood’s greatest gift.

As a contemplative exercise,  I find self-identification –  leading  on to a ‘fullness’ or ‘just being’ phase’ – profoundly valuable. It takes me half an hour and it seeds clarity and fullness in my daily life.

 

*Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989

 

POEM: THE BREATH OF NATURE

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds

Which, noiseless in themselves,

Awaken voices from other beings,

Blowing on them.

From every opening

Loud voices sound. Have you not heard

This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood

On the steep mountain:

Oak trees with holes and cracks

Like snouts maws and ears,

Like beam-sockets, like goblets,

Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.

You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,

Shouts of command, grumblings,

Deep drones, sad flutes.

One call awakens another in dialogue.

Gentle winds sing timidly,

Strong ones blast on without restraint.

Then the wind dies down. The openings

Empty out their last sound.

Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:

The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.

The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.

What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:

Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.

Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.

What is this power?

From:  Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

POEM: PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE

PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE – TO FRIENDS IN THE CAPITAL

I reined in my horse below a pine ridge

and hiked to the lookout on top

the trail appeared impassable as I started out

but once I arrived I wished it were longer

from the summit I heard a chorus of winds

in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream

the sound of a bell roused me on the Way

the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist

though my visit was brief

I finally saw what caused my troubles

but when I thought about building a hut

I knew it would have to wait for old age.

 

From In Such Hard Times: the Poetry of Wei Ying-Wu translated by Red Pine, Port Townsend: WA, USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Wei Ying-wu was a poet of the later 8th century CE, as we count time. It was a period when the later-remembered-as-glorious T’ang dynasty had begun to unravel. Translator Red Pine says that “Wei lived his life wondering what went wrong”, giving a melancholy tinge to many of his poems. He was distantly related to the Imperial family, a scholar in both the Buddhist and Confucian traditions who spent many years as a state official without much enjoying it.

This poem was written in 771. (In Britain, that’s 22 years before the Viking sack of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne.) Shaolin Temple was built in the fifth century for a monk from India in a high mountain basin at the foot of Sungshan’s Shaoshih Peak. The trail from the temple to the top went right by the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism spent nine years in meditation.

The chime to which Wei refers was used in Chan monasteries to mark the end of a meditation period. The use of the term ‘the Way’ (Tao) wasn’t confined to Taoists – ‘Tao’ was also used by Confucians, and by Buddhists as a translation of Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. The last two lines of the poem show a tension between Wei’s Buddhist and Confucian trainings – whether to let go of worldly attachments, or whether to stay in his post and “wait for old age” before building his hut.

CONTEMPLATION AND ACTION

I’ve been thinking about action and contemplation – and their relationship. I think they belong together. Both modes are engaged. Neither is passive or indifferent.  I am coming to see them as qualities that arise together and remain interdependent, rather like the paired opposites described in the Tao Te Ching:

For being and non-being arise together

Hard and easy complete each other

Long and short shape each other

High and low depend on each other

Note and voice make the music together

In progressive Christian circles, this kind of relationship is demonstrated in organisations such as Richard Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation. Andrew Harvey would be another example.  In my ‘contemplative Druidry’ home group, I’ve noticed that a high proportion of the members are politically and socially engaged (mostly in the kind of causes currently packaged as ‘Green’). And I’ve also noticed that these different commitments support each other, rather than getting in each other’s way. On the one side it’s something about self-care, time for refreshment and renewal , and remembering to pause a little, able to maintain a spacious rather than frantic or tunnel-visioned awareness. On the other side it’s about enacting our interconnectedness and service, our commitment to the life of the world.  Right now it’s nudging me in the direction of activity.

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