Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paul: Dogen: the Maya

I have been alternating my morning readings between Dogen's Shobogenzo and Paul's letters. These might seem to have little to do with each other, coming as they do from alternate traditions on opposite sides of the world. Yet, as I read, I am oddly struck by the tone and the sincerity of both authors as they speak of a spiritual search that begins within the depths of man and cannot be conducted in any other place or any other manner.

Both men emphasize over and over again: practice, practice, practice. They both emphasize what an extraordinary and amazing gift this thing we call life is, and how vital our inner approach to it needs to be. They both speak from their own direct experience about the possibility of a transformation so profound that nothing in the world can ever seen the same after it is understood.

It's odd to me that so many academics and scientists so readily dismiss the religious question. Despite the overwhelming evidence of thousands of years of experience and discussion on these matters, the reductionist faction in society insists that it is all imaginary. Subjective. If it cannot be analyzed, apparently, it doesn't exist. They would actually have us believe that the generations of great spiritual masters are making everything up. Their response to geniuses like Meister Eckhart and Dogen is encapsulated in snotty little books and sound bites that today's overstimulated, mindless media is anxious to exploit.

Maybe the reason these little men shout so loud is because they are in such a tiny minority. It's sad for them, really: they're up against billions upon billions of living people who believe in the religious experience, and approximately 10,000 years or so of human history that is largely built on this question.

What makes matters even more frustrating for them is that they think that they know everything and have everything figured out. I am often like that myself, so I can well understand their frustration and their need to attack everything they don't feel represents a valid point of view. If it were not for the terrifying shock of my own religious experience, which radically transformed everything I thought I knew and everything I believed in, I might even be on their side.

When the intellect acts alone, it acts from desperation. Most of our modern culture is built on the intellect acting alone. A very close friend of mine from my group once said that Dr. Welch told him that today's world was a picture of intellectual center run amok. Couldn't agree with him more.

OK, now we come to the Maya. Here is a third force -- from a completely different part of the world than Paul's Roman Empire, and Dogen's Imperial China and feudal Japan.

The Mayan culture grew up, so far as we can tell, completely independent of influences from the old world. Their art looks very different than old world art. Their myths appear to be very different than old world myths. Yet they managed to develop an elaborate religious culture that in many ways emulates the religious elaborations we find in the old world.

We know very little about this religion, but we do know that it was a major force in their society. On the trip, it repeatedly occurred to me that understanding the Maya hinges on understanding their religion. Just looking at architecture and histories of who killed who will not give us any real insight into what went on back then.

The lack of written texts suggests that we may never understand their religious practices in any detail, but we can make some pretty reasonable assumptions.

The first assumption is that they were a lot like we are today. This is true of most ancient cultures. Believing that distance in time, or distance in geography, produces human beings and cultures that are completely different than one another is false. Viewed from a strictly Darwinian point of view, we must argue that cultures, traditions, and societies all spring from the same basic biological roots. Because they are a product of natural selection as much as anything else, they will tend to resemble each other anywhere, and will always fulfill the same functions.

This means that we can look for similarities between completely unrelated societies and cultures with some degree of confidence.

The second assumption is that their religion had an esoteric tradition. All religions do. Like Paul, and like Dogen, they had a powerful interest in the nature of the inner man. Maybe not all their rulers did; maybe not all their people did. There was, however, a priesthood deeply interested in the varieties of religious experience. And there is one excellent piece of evidence directly at hand to support this contention.

We know that the Maya ingested hallucinogenic on a regular basis; this was a practice all across Mexico, Central, and South America, and still is today. Anyone who has taken LSD can tell you that practices of this nature will have a profound effect on one's perception of reality.

There can be little doubt that their ingestion of peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other psychoactive compounds informed their view of the inner man, raising questions that our own counterculture raised in the 1960s. Because their own work in this area was done over centuries, under the supervision of shamans who had extensive experience, they probably achieved more profound understandings than students on a college campus can.

I came across intimations of this when I was in Guatemala. As an artist and longtime student of symbolism, I tend to look at artworks in a slightly different manner than archaeologists, professors, and your average tourist will.

What repeatedly struck me about the art of the Maya was that they often appear to depict inner structures such as flowers and Chakras, much in the same way that we see them in Hindu, Buddhist, and Babylonian and Egyptian art.

From my own point of view, the location of the symbols leaves little doubt that the esoteric students in the Americas became familiar with the inner structure of man in the same way that the old world religions did, and that they did so independent of influence from the old world.

That in itself provides some weight to the scientific argument for the existence of these things, because when two societies that are completely separated and have cannot have influenced each other arrive at the same general conclusions about these matters, it indicates that there is an objective basis to the questions.

The questions run deep. While I was on my trip, I saw a few pieces of art that bore such striking resemblances to Asian art and mythology that one would be tempted to argue there were direct influences. I feel reasonably certain there were not, which suggests to me that the Maya were well acquainted with the ideas of chakras, and the various forces that can lead to the inner transformation of man. The fact that they, like all other societies, objectified these questions in an outward manner and turned them into a form of literalism is just one more point of contact that verifies they were much like the rest of us.

In other words, when we encounter these ancient cultures, those of us conducting an inner search can perhaps begin to sense a kinship with them that transcends the mysteries left by the erosive force of time.

These were, after all and above all, human beings; and it is only in the exploration of our humanity itself that we can discover what we are.

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

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