Such a symphony as this
will never be heard at Carnegie Hall
No stringed instrument, no horn, no timpani will summon
Horses walking at a clip, hooves against rock, bells around necks
Each a different size, weight, tone.
And prayer wheels spinning, squeaking, whining
Feet shuffling, stepping, stamping around the kora
The reciting of mantra some loud some little more than breath– men, women, children–
Om mani padme hung
Om mani padme hung
Om mani padme hung
The mala beads through fingers—whisper of wood on wood, chime and ring of crystal—
All a great and sweeping orchestra
The aria sung by nuns
The chorus taken up by goats coming in for milking
I believe in reincarnation. I don’t invest a lot of time thinking or talking about who I was or might have been in a past life, it’s not like that. It’s more of an awareness than a belief, actually; I’m aware of something, a certain transience that permeates life and death and dreams and stories that makes them all pretty much the same thing. It’s like sleeping and waking until there’s no real difference, until a sense of awakening from one state into the other is the norm; no one place superior to the other, or even more ‘real’, although we might use the word for convenience.
In Buddhism there are many teachings on the bardo; people confuse the word with death, when in truth bardo simply refers to the ‘in-between’. In the bardo of living and dying, everything is in-between; we’re always in motion. It’s all real—life, death—and it’s all a dream. Liberation upon hearing, seeing—all refer to being freed up from the illusion that anything is permanent when nothing is.
Traveling in the Himalayas, reading the translated teachings of Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsoygal, I’m saddened to think of the great loss of beauty in our world, the way people have rationalized myth to death, have given up on magic, view sacred rituals as antiquated. They see these stories as happening in a lost time, if at all, or as fanciful metaphor. Science, rational thought—these are of value—still, I want people to sit still and listen to the land, the sky, the rocks, the water, the birds and animals. They speak—it may not be verbal, or human speech but they’re talking. They were speaking ‘back then’ and they are speaking still. Speaking to themselves and to us and listening, straining for recognition. Waiting, hoping for us to speak back.
I traveled to the Gobi and from there to Kathmandu and from there to Upper Mustang, in Nepal; to Tibet, Bhutan. I was not alone but can’t speak for the people I traveled with, for their experiences. Although I traveled with them, although I greatly enjoyed their human company in company’s time as I do with people, I more firmly rely on communion with land, with wind, with horses, dogs, with sound; I am most at home in my body when my senses are in high gear. A witness, silent and absorbing, more deeply drawn to a single motion of a single leaf or bird, a delicate whisper of breeze, a rock tumbling down the mountain crying out, “Free! Free!”
Yet so precious is a human incarnation–to meet with a person is to enjoy a glance, a laugh, a smile, an unexpected rendezvous high in the mountains with a pilgrim, an old woman who spoke no English, whose lilting Tibetan might just have well been a bird singing, my babbling English another. We waved our hands and smiled, nodded, laughed and then walked together until our paths diverged. As the climb grew steeper, she stopped, frowning, touched my chest. She picked the leaves from a small bush, crushed them, put them to her nose and then to mine, pushing them into my hand, miming breathlessness. When you can’t catch your breath, when the climb is steep and air thin, put this to your nose and breathe.
While others can and do mark names, places, dates, “I have been here and here, and oh, did I mention—here?” Where, where exactly is here? Ghosts of those who lived more fully here than most of us will ever imagine are everywhere around us and we trod with heavy heel over and through them dragging them on our shoes like errant litter, walking over and through them without seeing. I walk the mountain paths, over rock and ledge, along narrow trails while at my back vaporous phantasmagoria tug at my shirttails. I wait until the others pass me, move on ahead that I might commune. Let others call it “wind”.
The view that we should only trust what can be proven is generally held to be an either/or argument. A given idea can either be proven or not; therefore we assume there to be two types of people—those who agree with this argument or those who do not. Yet we need not be hasty in taking sides on this. In fact, there needn’t be sides to take.
The need for proof has always been with us and is not without merit. Logical assessment and dissection of fact, re-assembling ideas to form other ideas, sequencing—indeed thought itself—are functions of the brain necessary to survival and awakening of consciousness in both a material and philosophical sense. In its highest form inquiry of a deliberate, linear sort works in a positive way as impetus for wonder and discourse. Thinking does not eliminate the validity of what we so derisively of late have termed “magical thinking”. Given free rein our imagination drives the joyous exploration of mysterious existence. The need for proof of a benevolent sort does not preclude Abelard’s sic et non. A “yes and no” approach to the unknown acknowledges the need for unity among our species, the drive to connect, to celebrate, to rejoice in the miracle of consciousness and the magnificence of co-creation.
(Photos of a pilgrimage, Zetang, Tibet. Jon Schechner photographer)