Sunday, February 3, 2008

Guatemala: so far, so good


No, the picture's not from Guatemala... the picture is from Banteay Srei in Cambodia. But the Mayans would have liked it.

We're waiting at the Guatemala city airport for our connection to Flores; I spent a large portion of the flight here perusing several textbooks on Mayan history.

Following close on the heels of our trip to Angor Wat, several things already strike me about Mayan iconography. Even though there is scant evidence for any contact whatsoever between the Americas and Asia over the past 2,000 years, the artistic record suggests that the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayan cultures developed a rich spiritual understanding with elements strongly reminsicent of Asian traditions.

For the inevitable skeptics, I should point out there is some legitimate evidence for historical contact between Asia and Mesoamerica, , consisting largely of several very unique clay figurines on swing seats whose posture has its counterparts only in some few examples known from China (provenance, as I recall, coastal Peru--can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum, NYC), and an extraordinary method of papermaking on the pacific coast of central America using incised paddles that is clearly related to the way it's done in Polynesia. (Article in Natural History Magazine, about ten years ago.)

Anyway, we can put the argument aside for the time being. What's interesting is the possibility that experience in these areas is the same everywhere--that is, as Mr. Gurdjieff said, once one reaches the level of what he called "objective knowledge" there can be no disagreement. It's a shame, I think, that he appears to have left us no commentary on the religious practices of central and South America. They seem to be entirely absent from Beelzebub's Tales--the only continent that earns this distinction besides, logically enough, Antarctica.

The Mayans had a rich serpent iconography which we will be discussing in future posts, since some elements of it seem to relate to the way nagas were used in Hindu art. In other words, there are many images in Mayan art which indicate an interest in the energy of the spine, as well as depicting what appear to be well-known chakra locations in highly stylized manner.

One image I have in mind, which can be found on p. 94 of Willam Coe's concise little guidebook to Tikal (now out of print, but available on the internet) depicts a figure who appears to bear a distinct resemblance to tantric art from Tibet and India showing the three channels of yogic energy which run vertically through the human body. It's populated by elaborate ornamentation in the form of demiurges and gods which probably depict the actions of various higher hydrogens on the body. Some of the imagery reminds me, of all things, of Paul Reynard's artwork, which was clearly inspired by specific inner energy experiences.

What fascinates me about this is that it seems possible the priesthoods and esoteric schools of Mesoamerica had understandings similar to those in Asia. Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan offered us some possible insights into that lost world--and, to me, it does seem reasonable to believe that these schools did not become extinct. Castaneda's insights seem too profound for mere invention.

The overarching premise here is that the Mesoamericans discovered and explored questions about the inner world, outer world, and the nature of their interrelationship, reaching similar conclusions to the Yogis, albeit with very different cultural trappings.

I think it's fairly clear they employed hallucinogens to do so; their rich and unique art echoes LSD experiences. As even Gurdjieff himself pointed out, it's possible for a wise yogi to "take a pill" that will give him the "results" he seeks.

When one combines this statement with the things Wade Davis recounts in his books One River and Shadows in the Sun about the contemporary practices of South American Shamans with complex concoctions made from the Ayahuasca vine and other natural hallucinogens, the suggestion that real insights were gained by this method is compelling. Those of you who haven't checked out Davis' personal accounts of these Shamans ought to; it's utterly fascinating.

All of this aside, stay tuned for impressions of Tikal and Guatemala!

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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