contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Tibet

BOOK REVIEW: A STORY WAITING TO PIERCE YOU

Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.

Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.

Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.

Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo –  understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.

Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.

Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”

A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.

(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.

WHERE THE LIGHT GETS IN

The pot belongs to my wife Elaine*, and used to live outdoors. Late in the winter it filled with rain. Then there were days of frost and the water turned into ice. The ice needed more room, and pushed against the sides of the pot. When the ice melted the pot fell apart in two neat halves. Nature in action, over time.

As part of her work, Elaine knows something about kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery”. This treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Culturally, the approach is an aspect of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Elaine’s repair, applying kintsugi, is literally illuminated.

The result reminds me of the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.

“Forget your perfect offering.

“There is a crack in everything.

“That’s where the light gets in.”

After some hesitation, I added my Tibetan bells to the picture above. The cord attaching the two bells is about half its original length due to wear and tear. But the bells still ring. My ownership of them, here and now, is almost certainly the result of Tibet’s collective disaster and the resultant Tibetan diaspora. In the world of biological life and time, disaster and repair are a common theme. If the crack is where the light gets in, the work of repair is sacred.

*See https://elaineknight.wordpress.com

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