March 24, 2009 § 3 Comments
History as the rigorous and systematic study most of us Westerners know and either love or loathe began in ancient Greece, with Herodotus and Thucydides. Those early historians celebrated the great deeds of men (literally men) and their famous chronicles of war and triumph are touchstones in the tradition of Western Humanism. In the past two centuries, the study of history has become even more rigorous and scientific. Holy relics are subjected to carbon dating–our earliest beginnings are sought not just through anthropological evidence but through population genetics, DNA testing.
From the beginning of time, however, humans related to their past through a blend of myth, legend, and recollection of actual events. This is certainly true of religious traditions. I’ve recently learned that Taoism is sometimes called the “Huang-Lao Teaching,” after the “Yellow Emperor,” Huang Di, and the “Old Master,” Lao-tzu. In all honesty, I thought Taoism originated with Lao-tzu and his famous book of aphorisms about the Way, the Tao Te Ching, along with Chuang-tzu, both of whom lived and wrote in the 3rd or 4th Century. Like many proto-hippie seekers, I read the Tao Te Ching as a teenager and young adult, believing that the truth that flowed through it had a different density than the facts and views I picked up in college. The Tao was mystical. The Tao was like water. I had no trouble believing that the English translation I held in my hands (check out the superb Stephen Addis, Stanley Lombardo translation) represented a stream of secret watery mystical wisdom that stretched back to the dawn of Chinese culture–human culture. I knew that the Mysterious Female and Mother Earth ran all through it and as a woman I was all for it. It wasn’t every Eastern Way that told us that women just might “get it” a little more naturally than men.
But I don’t think I fully registered its prehistoric origins and the role of the feminine–expressed in the Tao Te Ching in symbols like water, darkness, the valley, the female, the babe–until now. The Yellow Emperor–the co-founder of Taoism, if you will– is said to have lived in the mid-third millennium B.C.E. He is said to have learned medicine and life extension from two male teachers, and to have learned sexology and magic from two female teachers. All of these “sciences”– and the prominent role of female teachers–are part of Taoism and Chinese culture. According to Taoist lore, Lao Tzu also had a female teacher. There is no hard archeological evidence of the first Hsia Dynasty. Scholars agree that Yellow Emperor, who is credited with introducing civilization to the Chinese people, was probably a local diety who came to be regarded as a historical figure through a process known as euhemerism. Indeed, most scholars doubt the existence of Lao Tzu (although the Chou Dynasty he allegedly fled was materially, historically real, lasting from 1045-256 B.C.E.).
But the Taoist tradition extends back way before the prehistoric Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. According to the Immortal Sisters, translated by Thomas Cleary, there is a “legend of a certain female tribal leader of high antiquity who is said to have ‘patched the sky with five-colored stones’ at some remote time when the pristine completeness of human life and harmony with nature had been lost. Using the traditional keys to Chinese symbolism, Cleary equates the sky with mind and the number five with the center–this prehistoric shamaness centered the minds of human beings at a time when who-knows-what knocked them out of balance and brought them to the brink of destruction. Cleary suggests that the importance of the “five elements” and “five forces” in Chinese thought is a mythic link to the deep past.
How amazing it is to think that there are traditions that flow to us from our earliest common human origins–to think that there may be One Truth or One Way that was first articulated in Neolithic times, based on observations of nature…(in Taosim, particularly important was watching the Yellow River flow). It is even more amazing to think that the secret wisdom of women has transcended and survived the harshest oppression.
Maybe it’s time to look back…for the future.
March 13, 2009 § 6 Comments
If you read or watch the news, or even if you avoid such things, it’s impossible not to filled with sense that the nation and the world is facing an uncertain future. It’s easy to understand why so many people of so many different faiths or no faith believe the planet is spinning unstoppably towards Apocalypse in 2012 (at the very latest). Many years ago when I first started to meditate and otherwise seek the deeper meaning of my life, I asked a wise old man what I could trust to guide me, since many of my beliefs had turned out to be nothing but blind biases–and since reality was clearly so much strange and subject to change. “You can always trust your search,” he said. “If you’re searching for truth, you’re moving in the right direction.”
Recently I read that the great Zen sage Dogen taught that the path of practice is really a circle. He meant that practice and enlightenment are one. He also meant that we sit down to practice–when we become still and open enough inside to realize that we dwell in mystery–we are linked with fellow seekers and great awakened ones past, present, and future. It comforts me these days to picture myself as part of a great circle that stretches back to the dawn of humanity. I can see our earliest ancestors walking in file out of Africa and fanning out around the globe–all of us of one heart and mind, seeking the higher ground of some indestructible truth.
What is my strategy for surviving the current crisis? Basically to be useful and as kind as my flawed ego-ridden being allows. To volunteer when asked. I trust my ongoing search and the growing intuition that the goal of all our human searching here on fragile Earth is, in the words of E.M. Forster: “Only connect.”
March 2, 2009 § 1 Comment
For weeks in mid February, I thought of my friend Leila Hadley Luce. One day, for example, I was driving on the Taconic Parkway, noting that the sky was staying lighter longer andwhat a relief having such a long cold winter. In rushed an impression of Leila. I remembered sitting across the table from her on Fishers Island or in her living room in Manhattan. I remembered the way she loved nature–luxuriated in it, exulted in it. She loved daffodils, for example, she aimed to have “rivers of daffodils.” But Leila didn’t just exult in sensory richness, she noticed things. I once described to her the wild stillness I had seen in a big hawk I had come eye-to-eye with sitting in a tree in some woods where I live. She told me a person have a very complete communication with an animal if he or she could meet its gaze with the same stillness. Leila’s perceptions and descriptions could be shamanic, instructive–she once described me as being like a “sea fan.”
This in not to suggest that Leila lived a small, contemplative life. She passed up college to sail around the world on a schooner. She had a string of famous and glamorous friends and lovers–S. J. Perelman encouraged her to write, a young and gorgeous Marlon Brando pursued her. The last time I saw Leila, at lunch at her apartment this past November, she was so ill she could no longer leave her bedroom. She insisted I drink champagne even though she couldn’t. She gave me a beautiful deep blue raw silk shawl and encouraged me to stay and talk with her for hours, telling her about things I had seen and experienced, including what an ice boat was and how father had built one and sailed it wearing a buffalo robe coat. It was a wonderful lunch and it made my heart twist to say goodbye because it really felt like goodbye.
As I drove on the Taconic, in rushed all these memories and a great warm feeling of love for Leila as a true and generous friend and a wonderful human being. At the end of that very week, I was heartbroken to see Leila’s obituary in the Sunday New York Times. I miss Leila Hadley Luce and I will never forget her….and I can’t help but wonder if I was sensing Leila’s radiance, her unique presence, as it left the world. At the very least, it was a reminder that there is more to us than we know and more going on in this world than we know.