Into the Fire
June 18, 2011 § 29 Comments
I’m packing to go away again, this time to a camp on a lake in the woods in the foothills of the Catskills. This time I was invited not by Buddhists but by friends in the Gurdjieff Work in New York. And this time, I am volunteering to be a co-leader of the kitchen (this is way out my comfort zone since I have long regarded myself to be at best an “assembler” of very simple dishes, preferrably involving one big pot). As if this isn’t enough, I also accepted the challenge of joining someone in giving a little talk about the work of the English author Peter Kingsley, who was interviewed in the “Beauty” issue of Parabola. When she first called me with the proposition, I immediately thought of a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker recently: two people are driving in a car and the driver says to the passenger (I’m paraphrasing), “We agree we’re lost but the important thing is to keep the focus on who is to blame.”
At first glance, since Kingsley’s work rests on deep scholarship, on a knowledge of ancient Greek and presocratic philosophy, it seems there may as well be two dogs sitting in the front of the room, barking as the pair of us. Yet on further reflection, after I reread A Story Waiting to Pierce You, Kingsley’s brief poetic account of a mysterious shaman who emerges from “Hyperborea,” a word the Greeks of 2500 years ago used for “the beyond of the beyond,” a few questions and reflections are bubbling up in this ordinary, unlettered barking dog that do seem worth asking. In his latest book, Kingsley describes a shaman from Mongolia who delivered an arrow of very special knowledge to the early Greeks–literally handing the arrow to Pythagorus. Very consciously, yet in a special ecstatic trance, this Mongolian shaman brought a way to experience reality to the cradle of Western Civilization–as other “skywalkers” brought it to Tibet, and ultimately the New World. To make a captivating story ultra short, we forgot this knowledge. According to Kingsley some ancient philosophers, particularly Parmenides and Empedocles, practiced a kind of mysticism that drew on the whole being as a way to approach reality. Overall, however, people began to rely on thinking. Not so surprisingly, Kingsley’s reading of presocratic philosophy–and with the latest book, the history of Buddhism–is at odds with the experts in those fields. Yet Kingsley maintains that many readings of esoteric and philosophical works are misreadings–that we must approach them with the whole of our beings, the whole of our lived experience.
Here are some questions that arise: some friends in the Gurdjieff Work seek the source of Gurdjieff’s teachings and Kingsley’s work seem to point to a source. But isn’t there always a deeper source, a “beyond of the beyond” ? Last time, I blogged about a temple unearthed that was built about 11,000 B.C.–long before this Mongolian “Skywalker” sky walked to Greece 2500 years ago. And lately I’ve been thinking again about the ancient cave painters, who lived many thousands of years before the temple builders. And so on, back to God, as they say. Is it possible to leave the divine with the Divine?
Also, Kingsley speaks of the Mongolian shaman being in a state of ecstasy, and a state of one-pointed focus. In the Buddhist tradition, not just Tibetan but Theravada, ecstasy is not the highest state. Equanimity–and the clear seeing beyond all forms, all states of being–is. Here also, is it possible to just stay open, to seek what is beyond even ecstasy?
Also, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the wild shaman who showed the saintly Padmasambava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, that there is a state beyond what he thought was awakening happened to be a woman. Her name was Yeshe Togyal, and they called her the “arrow maker” and the “one who flies on arrows.” She showed him that there is a higher state of unity. Kingsley accuses other historians and philosophers of glossing over facts they don’t quite know what to do with. Perhaps he does that with female shamans?
The great gift of Kingsley’s work is to show us that there is a radically different way to hold facts–not to grasp them with the mind to explore them with our whole being, with our whole lived experience. For me, this includes a kind of faith the Buddhists call “keeping the heart open in the darkness of the unknown.”
I’ll let you know how the cooking and the barking goes.