Saturday, July 23, 2011
Book Review: The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer by unknown 13th century Iceland - translated by Jesse Byock (Penguin 1990)
This was a very famous and well-known saga in the medieval Germanic and Norse worlds and versions of it appear in the Eddas and the German poem Nibelungenlied as well as in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It strongly influenced Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as well. I have heard it also called the Nifelung (sp?). The tale seems to take place in the latter part of the Roman empire after the rise of Atilla the Hun (here Atli) and his army displacing some of the Gothic tribes of the East (Ostrogoths) The Burgundians of which Sigurd marries into their royalty – are thought to have migrated from Northeast Germany and Poland near the Baltic Sea to Western Germany before the Huns – then driven into France by the Huns to where the French land of Burgundy is today. The Volsungs are a royal family that may have come from the original Gotland (Sweden?) to the area of Germany. In any case, this time period is known is the migration period of Germanic tribes. The Huns of Atilla, residing in Hunland – were thought to be nomadic horseman who came from much further east – the steppes or Altaic Mountains of Russia or even Northern China, though there were likely many different peoples of this sort that were called Huns. In another story I read on-line, it was postulated that these Huns were originally a Vanic tribe that was exiled by the ruling Aesir tribes. The Vanic tribes were thought to have stronger female leadership and seeth-type shamanic magic by the on-line author. The figure of Brynhild (sister of Atli) who is a Valkyrie in the Norse version exhibits magical abilities.
These stories existed in an oral tradition for at least 700-800 years before they were written down in the 1200’s. Much of the activity takes place in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. Odin, the lord of , appears at several junctions in the stories seemingly to guide the fate of the heroes. These tales “...became an integral part of the cultural lore of Scandinavian societies.” The Volsungs, being an indigenous Nordic royal family is certainly a factor in their popularity there. Later, in the Viking Age (800-1070) these tales were spread by the skalds traveling on the ships to new lands. The Icelandic skalds became renowned and hired in the courts of Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. Apparently, the Germanic version, with Seigfried (Sigurd) as the hero was a little different – with much more chivalry elements added – but was written down also in the 1200’s.
Byock notes the proliferation of elements of the Saga of the Volsungs in Medieval Norse Art, much in wood and stone carvings and much also on Medieval Churches.
“The most frequently illustrated scenes are the reforging of the sword Gram, the killing of the dragon Fafnir, the roasting of the dragon’s heart, the birds giving Sigurd advice, and Sigurd’s horse Grani, often loaded with treasure from the hoard. A frequently depicted episode from the second part of the saga show’s Sigurd’s brother-in-law King Gunnar bound in the snake pit, playing a harp with his toes.”
Byock notes that the dragon/serpent-slaying exploits of Sigurd were easy to adapt to Christianity since the hero slays an animal symbolic of Satan. As well he notes that Sigurd may have been chosen in Sweden over St. Michael as the Christian dragon slayer due to his popularity in enemy kingdoms in Denmark and Germany.
Byocks’s lengthy introduction is most helpful in examining the influences and elements of the story. He notes that the early part of the story involves many supernatural elements that likely have pre-Christian ideas – though much of the precision of the symbolism is probably lost. Odin is associated with some royal families in Sweden and Germanic areas as progenitor/ancestor and as a frequent patron. Early in the story when Sigurd’s father, Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli are driven away by the king of Gautland (Sweden) they live in the wilds like/as wolves under wolf skins – which is reminiscent of Odin’s wolves. Berserker warriors would take on this form as well – perhaps emulating these two. Perhaps this wolf shamanism peaks into earlier practices in the region.
Regin the Blacksmith tells Sigurd the story about Odin, Loki, and Hoenir traveling when they come to the waterfall of Andvari, a dwarf who lived beneath it. Here Loki kills an otter who is actually Otr, the brother of Fafnir and Regin, whose father is the powerful and wealthy mage Hreidmar. They skin and eat the otter. When they met up with Hreidmar he captured them and demanded that they must fill the otter skin with gold and red gold as a ransom (thus gold is known in lore as the kenning – Otter’s ransom). Loki then went out and captured Andvari and demanded gold from the dwarf. He gave all he had but kept back a ring which Loki forced from him. Then he laid a curse on the owners of the gold and especially the ring. This is likely the basis of the cursed ring idea in the Lord of the Rings. This curse sets the stage for the virtual river of tragedy that forms the second part of this saga. Just after the ransom was paid, Fafnir killed his father Hreidmar and left for the far wilderness with the treasure and became a great serpent, or dragon. Regin became a blacksmith for the king where he later met Sigurd. He attempted to forge swords for Sigurd but Sigurd through his power would break them on the anvil when testing them. Then he went to his mother and obtained the two pieces of Gram, the sword of his father Sigmund. Regin was somehow able to reforge the sword so that it was powerful and Sigurd could not break it on the anvil. He encouraged Sigurd to take it and slay Fafnir. Odin appears as an old man and instructs Sigurd how to slay the dragon by digging a hole and hiding in it and thrusting his sword from below as the serpent slithers over him.
Byock draws comparisons between this saga and the Nibelungenlied and to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf Saga. A difference in the Volsungs Saga that he notes is that instead of there being order and safety after the monster is slain, there is instead much danger, disaster, and tragedy. He also notes the key themes of family loyalty and family betrayal:
“An overriding theme of tension between marriage and blood bonds runs through the saga. For generation after generation, strife with kin by marriage brings a series of misfortunes upon the Volsungs. Marriage creates new kinship alliances, which are vital for survival in societies like the one pictured in the saga, where there is no effective central order and only a rudimentary judiciary. Many of the saga’s major characters are kings or noble retainers, individuals prepared to fight regularly to maintain their status. Even though pledges were exchanged between lord and retainer, the most trustworthy defense lay in the family. Yet villainy often arose within that social unit, especially in the weak link of the in-law relationship.”
It seems logical that since intermarrying was a way to forge different tribes into allies - that often these contracts did not make the strongest of bonds. Certainly much of the family and blood feuding was really tribal feuding that had likely gone back to earlier times. Tribes banded together to face off threats such as the Huns but often when the threats were thrown off the old rivalries reappeared.
He also notes that Sigurd breaks the patrilocal tendency of Germanic peoples – where the new wife from outside the group goes to live with the husband and his group – by living with the Burgundians after marrying their Princess Gudrun.
Much of the saga, especially the second part, is historical as well as legendary. Kings Gunnar, Atli, and Jormunrek are likely the historical kings Gundaharius of the Burgundians (d.437), Atilla the Hun (d.453), and the Gothic King Ermenrichus (d.375).
King Ermenrichus appears in other accounts of the time such as Jordanes – History of the Goths – and as Eormanric in the Anglo-Saxon lament – Deor. It is also noted that in Beowulf it is not Sigurd who slays the dragon but his father Sigmund – as Sigemung Waelsing (Volsung). Byock thinks that Sigmund was the original dragon slayer and Sigurd was added to the tale later. Byock makes the interesting idea that Sigurd may be related to Arminius, a Germanic warrior of the Cherusci tribe who trained in Rome and then betrayed the invading Romans in the famous battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD. This was a decisive battle in which whole Roman legions were slain and secured freedom for many of the Germanic tribes from Roman rule for centuries to come. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions that heroic songs were sung about him nearly a century after his death. His father was named Sigimerus and his wife had the suffix ‘eld’ similar to the ‘hilde’ of Brynhild – but also of many Germanic women. Apparently the prefix ‘sig’ refers to victory. The link between Sigmund/Sigurd and Arminius is conjectural says Byock. He also explores the possibility of the hero being associated with the Frankish King Sigibert (535-575). Burgundians were among the subjects of this king – whose wife was Brunhilda – and said to have been a Visigoth princess from Spain – where they had been driven to at the time. So, in any case there seems to have been much mixing and similarity in many of the early epics and historical accounts regarding these heroes and their stories. Some dynasties such as the Ynglings – the traditional Kings of Norway trace their ancestry both to Odin and to Sigurd and the Volsungs. Richard Wagner, in his famous – Ring of the Nibelung – makes use of several versions of the story. He has Brynhild as the Valkyrie daughter of Wotan. Apparently, Wagner also added much to the story – often from other Eddic accounts of things – and utilized it to influence the Germans of his own time (19th century).
Early in the story, A hooded man (equated with Odin) thrust a sword into a tree trunk and stated that he who could draw it out would have it as a gift. Of course, this is similar to the King Arthur legend. Other magical events in the saga include an Ale of Forgetfulness, Odin’s sending of ‘wishmaidens’ to influence events and the fate of his ‘chosen’ royalty, and Sigurd getting knowledge of his precise fate from divinations by an uncle. After Sigurd kills Fafnir, the dialogue that takes place is interesting. Regin returns and drinks Fafnirs blood and sends Sigurd to roast the heart so that Regin may eat it. Sigurd tastes it on his finger to see if it is done (slight similarity to the Gwion/Taliesin myths). After this he is able to understand the speech of birds and hears from them that Regin is preparing to betray him. Sigurd then cut off Regin’s head and took the treasures, including the Helm of Awe, or Helm of Terror, which causes fear in men. He eats part of the dragon’s heart. After this he finds Brynhild, sleeping in her armour – after a battle where she defied Odin by striking down (in her Valkyrie mode) a king that Odin wanted to be victorious. For this indiscretion he sentenced her to mortality and to marry a mortal. She vowed that she would not marry a man who knew fear – so only Sigurd would she wed. Brynhild then shares with him beer charmed with runes of many kinds: victory runes, wave runes, speech runes, ale runes, aid runes, branch runes, mind runes, and cure runes – all curved on various surfaces of material and flesh and scraped away and mixed with holy mead defore charming the beer. There is much magic in the saga – such as dream interpretation – mostly among the women, and shape-shifting. Gudrun’s mother Grimhild is a powerful mage and both binds Sigurd with the Ale of Forgetfulness but also teaches him magic.
A whole series of tragedies attends this story from middle to end. Misunderstandings, heedlessness of good advice, various levels of deception, greed, and plotting through jealousy and vengeance. Perhaps this refers to the curse of the gold. Byock does note that Atilla collected quite a bit of gold as tribute, even from the Romans – so much so that many of his conquered Germanic and Scandinavian mercenaries became rich as well. King Atli seeks the treasure hoard through guile but the Burgundians do not betray its whereabouts. So the legend of the long hidden, but accursed Rhine Gold lives on, as it is said to be somewhere along the Rhine River. After Sigurd’s death Gudrun wanders off alone and ends up in Denmark at the Hall of King Half – weaving tapestries of family deeds and scenes. But then her brothers come in a great entourage to compensate her for their ill deeds with treasure (tainted treasure) and she is charmed by Grimhild to forget their enmity and so she meets again with tragic fate – although she does manage to kill King Atli. At the end of the story Gudrun loses all of her offspring – even Odin appears one more time to seal their fate – as if to wipe out the Volsung bloodline itself, as if - perhaps – to end the tragedy and the cursed fates of those associated with the gold, the Otter’s Ransom.
This is a fascinating story on several levels and hidden meanings of things may yet be deciphered. It is history, myth, tragedy, romance, legend, and magic. Why it was such a popular epic is not especially known but there is much to consider. Wealth from the Underworld may not spend well here. The interactions between supernatural realms and our earthly plane are often wrought with strange imbalances. Early in the story Sigmund and his nephew-son are revealed as Odinic shamans. The connection of Odin to the family remains till the end. The interaction of humans with the cursed gold as ever tragic. Brynhild is cursed to dwell earthbound, cast out of Valhalla for spiting Odin. This ends up tragically. Perhaps the story belies the danger in the Northern mythic imagination of interactions with supernatural realms. As in many cultures, the gods and spirits (and dwarves, witches, and fairies) are as petty and vengeful as humans and morality is as difficult for them as us. Sigurd, (and Gudrun at times, and Hoenir too) does seem to be the most morally and honorably inclined of the characters. In any case – those are my momentary speculations. More sagas to come.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Book Review: Aradia: Gospel of the Witches by Charles Leland
(The Witch’s Almanac LTD 2010 – originally published in 1899)
This book is one of the great influential texts on the development of modern Witchcraft and Wicca. It was adapted extensively by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente in the development of the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca. Leland, like others of his time, was a collector of folklore. This was a valuable pastime in the last few centuries as modernity gradually snuffs out the old folk traditions. Leland’s main source of information for this book was a woman called Maddalena who was a fortune-teller in Florence. The Vangelo or Gospel of Aradia tells of an Italian witch tradition based on the Goddess of the moon Diana, or Tana, of her consort the light-bringer Lucifer, and of their daughter, the daughter of night and day, called Aradia, or Herodias. The lore is not mostly Roman and Etruscan mythology but has both Christian and anti-Christian elements mixed in. There are consecrated cakes of grain meal, salt, and honey as in the Roman Mysteries.
The first section describes the birth of Aradia from the union of Diana, the Goddess of the Moon and of Wild Creatures and her lover and brother – the God of Light and the Sun and the Moon – Lucifer – who was banished (in the Christian mythos) due to his pride and vanity. Her mission as a mortal was to help the disenfranchised – often slaves who had to resort to crime to get by. She was a ‘Robin Hood’ figure of sorts – showing the weak how to harm their oppressors. Such arts as poisoning, paralyzing, crop destruction , and other malevolent forms of magic, did she learn and teach. Freedom – first from the condition of slavery – was highly valued:
“And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye Shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also:”
Diana is the Goddess of Witches and the ‘witch supper’ of cakes of meal, honey, salt, and water were consecrated to Diana but also the biblical Cain (related to the moon as he was said to be prisoner of the moon) who is conjured in other rites as well. The magic of the firefly is invoked as well as contemplation of the grain mysteries that were likely part of many Earth Mother cults. The cakes are made into the crescent moon shape. The method is to consume them as eucharist – while all are naked and then sing, dance, drink, and make love. So here we have the wild revelry of orgiastic ecstasy. Diana, in this later tradition, is also apparently the Goddess of thieves and criminals and protects those among them who call upon her properly.
There is given a method to invoke Aradia in a field at midnight with water, wine, salt, and one’s talisman and a small red bag. When one asks a favor of Aradia – there are three signs given in the invocation that one’s wish is to be granted – the hiss of a serpent, the light of a firefly, or the sound of a frog.
There is the curious method of asking the ‘deities’ – Diana and Aradia for favors and then as in some ceremonial magic methods – of demanding and threatening the spirits or deities with harm if they do not obey one’s request. This may be a very late addition or not but it is noted in several spells. It may be a reaction to Christianity in some sense as well – as in a subtle belief among some that these gods, or spirits are inferior – but also perhaps a reaction to ceremonial magic traditions where the will and might of the mage exceeds that of gods and spirits.
Fortunate things to Diana are especially a stone with a hole through it. Also the plants vervain and rue are sacred to her and to strega, or Italian witches. The stone with the hole is protected by incantation and by a magical figure called the Red Goblin who aids the owner mage.
There is a curious ritual given of sticking a lemon with many colored pins for good luck or with 13 black pins for cursing. The incantations are given in the text.
There are spells given to win love, for luck, for finding rare treasures, and for getting a good wine vintage. Wine in that incantation is called the blood of Diana and it is said there that grapes ripened in the waning moon will not make a good vintage. This incantation appears very old and with the emphasis on the drinking horn may link to Diana, or Artemis of Ephesus (from Ancient Greek Anatolia) who often appears with a horn and is often associated with Dionysus/Bacchus. Leland also notes a curious legend from his book – Legends of Florence:
“... there is one of the Via del Corno, in which the hero, falling into a vast tun or tina of wine, is saved from drowning by sounding a horn with tremendous power. At the sound, which penetrates to an incredible distance, even to unknown lands, all come rushing as if enchanted to save him. In this conjuration, Diana, in the depths of heaven, is represented as rushing at the sound of the horn, and leaping through doors or windows to save the vintage of the one who blows.”
It is the Red Goblin (equated by Leland to the English Robin Goodfellow) that saves the hero. The Red Goblin is an attendant of Diana, or as Leland says – Diana-Titania. Also given in the wine spell is the notion of kissing one’s hand to the new moon – which Leland says was banned as a pagan custom by the Hebrews in Old Testament times and thus somehow keeps its heretical spirit. I believe gypsies do a similar thing though I am not sure if they do it as a salute to the moon.
The old Etruscan name for Diana, is Tana, and is still used in Tuscany. Next is given the mythic story of Tana and Endymion, a youth whom she fell in love with – but also another witch fell in love with him but since he loved Tana, the other witch was jealous and hexed him to eternal sleep. Tana made a counter-charm whereby she could meet Endymion on the full moon and they could make love in the world of dreams. Leland suggests that this myth is an inheritance of Dianic witches and that it represents making sacred that which is secret and forbidden.
In Italy and Sicily, Diana as moon goddess is also combined with the Madonna and there are apparently quite a few legends where the Madonna takes on magical aspects of the moon goddess in order to help women with love and acceptance. One legend of a sad woman leaping to her death by night may indicate a devotee of Diana as Goddess of the Dew – which also falls by night – and is also associated with Venus/Aphrodite. Diana saves her and exhorts her to follow her ways and she attains her desire for a great wedding that her unkind parents prevented for her.
There is another story called – The House of the Wind – where a young girl was destined to become a nun according to her parents but she wanted to marry and make a family. She found her governess praying to the moonlight one night and the governess told her that it is better to pray to a goddess one can see – the moonlight – than to the unseen god of Christianity. She began practicing as her governess and following the Vangelo and met a great lover – but her mother would not have it and locked her in a tower. With the aid of Dianic magic she escaped and she and her lover dressed in pilgrim’s clothes and preached the doctrine of Diana – the goddess of the moon and fairies, and of the poor and oppressed, around the countryside. She was well-loved and worshipped as La Bella Pellegrina – the Beautiful Pilgrim. She was noted for her beauty, her goodness, and her charity. Her mother and the priests finally caught up with her and captured her intending to torture and kill her. But after she invoked Diana a great storm came and destroyed every house and structure except the little peasant cottage where she was imprisoned. This became known as the House of the Wind.
Diana (and Artemis) was also the Goddess of Chastity and there is a story in this tradition where a virgin woman is about to be raped but calls on the full moon for protection and so is protected and becomes the Goddess of the Chaste and the Moon.
There is another story where children of a very poor and hungry family offer flowers to a statue of Diana and the magician and poet Virgil (Roman author of the Aeniad – and apparently a figure of magic in the Strega tradition) appears to them and teaches them how to invoke Diana and her good fortune. After this they find slain prey near her statue that feeds their family. A priest walking by denounces Diana – seeing offerings before her statue and out of spite and derision rolls a decaying cabbage before her. He wakes up with a decaying head of a man they had recently beheaded and dies a few days after.
Another curious story is one about the goblin messenger of Mercury on whom Mercury bestowed the gift of being able to overtake and catch whatever or whomever he pursued. He had a sister and on this same day Diana bestowed on her the ability to elude whatever pursued her – and so there was a battle of the deities’ powers. Finally, Jupiter – the father of the gods – turned the sister into the moon and the brother into the sun and decreed that the moon shall ever elude him yet he shall catch her with his light – and this would be in a cycle as when the moon is new it is could and so covered with many coats (like an onion) and as she warms up she casts off her coats one by one until she is naked and the race begins again. Indeed – the Egyptians saw the moon in the symbolism of the onion as the crescent shapes appear when it is cut.
Diana, in her aspect, as patron of thieves and outcastes, had a peculiar manifestation as the goddess Laverna who protetced thieves and those who work by night and by secrecy as well as those who wished to avoid scandal as a result of lusty and laviscious acts. She was said to be the goddess of all dishonest and shabby people – for they needed patrons as well. Her statue ( perhaps as a head in reference to her story being clever to appear as a head and then a body and in each instance swearing on the unmanifested part) was said to appear in a hidden grove outside of town where robbers would secretly meet to view and share their plunder. She was said to be worshipped in perfect silence – due to the need of criminals to keep silence on several levels.
Leland discusses the nature of Herodias from the New Testament but notes that the worship of Diana and Herodias (Aradia) was condemned in very early Church Councils of the late Roman Empire. Leland equates Herodias to the Sumerian/Semitic Lilith. He thinks that the continuation and the changed form of the witch tradition was a result of the oppression of the Church and State against nature-oriented rural folk and their traditions. Of course, this oppression increased until it peaked in the times of the Inquisitions when keeping folk beliefs became punishable by torture and death.
Leland mentions vervain, verbena, and rue, and also poppies as sacred herbs in the Italian tradition. He notes that priestesses in ancient Persia were said to greet the morning sun naked waving stalks of freshly-picked verbena. He mentions nudity as a symbol of truth and sincerity. He also notes that in these stories it is a woman –Diana – who creates the universe and not a male figure as in many mythologies. He mentions the feminine power – since it is emphasized in the witch traditions for:
“Every woman is at heart a witch.”
Leland held out hope that one day would be discovered ancient texts that revealed the true antiquity of these traditions as he believed that much of the rhymes and incantations were preserved in the full archaic-ness. He provides some interesting conjecture about the power and role of women and the nature of folk-lore – ahead of its time really (1899).
There is another story of the Fairies (and dwarves and giants) as the Children of Diana and their forms being made of the rays of the moon. Another story is called: ‘Diana, Queen of the Serpents, Giver of the Gifts of Languages,’ where a legendary magician and physician called Melambo as a child plays with a nest of young snakes and wishes he could talk with them. Then he has a dream where the snakes go into his hair and their mother makes a long invocation to Diana and he is then able to understand the languages of all creatures. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Germanic/Norse Saga of the Volsungs where after Sigurd slays the Serpent-Dragon Fafnir he acquires the ability to understand the language of birds among other secrets, talismans, and treasures of Fafnir.
Diana is also invoked to give beauty and wealth and to restore vitality as other stories attest. Diana also is associated with cats and the ability to appear in the form of a cat in the strega tradition. Indeed, she is said to have seduced her brother Lucifer by first sleeping with him as a beloved cat then shape-shifting into her human form.
The last section of the book offers short essays by 13 contemporary people about the nature of Stregheria, Dianic Witchcraft, and the influence of Leland and this text. This is a fascinating section with the likes of Lori Bruno, Raven Grimassi, Dr. Leo Louis Martello, Patricia Della-Piana, and Christopher Penczak.
Lori Bruno mentions Aradia as daughter of Diana and Apollo. Dr. Leo Lois Martello is quoted as saying, “A true follower of the code of Aradia if you see an injustice and do nothing about it, you are just as guilty as the perpetrator of that injustice.”
Other of these commentators have noted that remnants of veneration of Aradia appear on the island of Sardinia and even in Romania – as Irodiada, the Queen of the Fairies. Herodias and Aradia may well relate to Hera (Juno) as well. In Tuscany this mother of the gods – Juno, was Jana and Diana was Dione and Tana. Aradia as Herodiade was also linked (by the Church) to the Germanic Holda – (or Frau Holda) as a wild and nocturnal goddess. But, apparently there also became a peasant tradition of anti-goddess magic among the Christian converts:
“Indeed, lest she ruin his crops, he would fire his gun into the storm clouds in which he imagined she traveled and shout the words:
“Curse, curse Herodias,
Thy mother is a heathen
Damned of God and fettered
Through the redeemer’s blood!” (quoted from commentary by Paul Huson)
Dr. Leo Lois Martello talks of a place in Sicily where there is a statue of the Madonna with a female Jesus – as indeed Aradia was sometimes called the female messiah – and of a much different spiritual tradition. He mentions also that threatening the deities perhaps brings us back to earlier traditions such as shamanism and even those of the African diaspora where such activities occur – as the gods are seen as suffering beings like us – but of a higher level but also laible to be influenced by threatening. Christopher Penczak also notes this aspect of Aradia as a messiah or an avatar. I have seen this as well in other legends that Raven Grimassi wrote about.
I think also that the Luciferian, or rebellious aspect of Aradia and her cult – bears further examination. These are deities associated with the downtrodden and outcaste – not only the poor and peasant – but also those who seek free thought and to go beyond the oppression and forced obedience of society in general. I have heard of other traditions associated with Aradia as well – in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and other places. She is a big aspect (though somewhat secretive) of the maiden-goddess in Wicca. Her egregore – I think – also encompasses taboo-breaking, unbridled sexuality, and wild female power – not unlike the Thelemic deity-thought-form of Babalon. She is also a pilgrim – a lady beloved of the people who travels and teaches among the folk. I think Aradia – as an archetype of freedom, justice, the balancing of the social outcastes, and rebelliousness in the service of justice – is a workable archetype. Very cool book to read and contemplate. I look forward to Leland’s other books – Legends of Florence – and Etruscan Roman Remains. Very little is known about the Etruscans – yet strange names of gods and strange pagan folk customs – only partly Roman are still around in Tuscany and Northern Italy. Perhaps as Leland hoped – more will be learned about the Etruscans in the future.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Book Review: The Shah Namah: The Persian Epic of Kings by Hakim Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi – translated by Helen Zimmern (Forgotten Books 1833, 2008)
A fine saga was this, with all the joys and sorrows of the best of sagas. As in many of the stories of Indo-European ilk there is a strong emphasis on battle etiquette, blood feuds, and the keeping of oaths of vengeance. The epic sort of tracks the royal history of Persia from some early kings to perhaps the beginning of the Islamic times. The importance of the Zoroastrian view is stressed as the veneration of Ormuzd (Ahura Mazda) as God and the personification of evil and treachery as Ahriman. Indeed a dualistic element seems to pervade as much of the feuding is between the kingdom of Iran and that of Turan (the Turks). The Persian kingdoms were rather vast in these time periods stretching through deserts and mountains including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrghistan, Kazakhstan, and even parts of China. The cities of Cabul (in Afghanistan) and Balkh (in Kazakhstan) are often mentioned. These are tales really beginning in the Iron Age but most seem to be from about 100 – 500 AD as a guess – during the Sassanid Empire of Persia. There is no mention of kings of presumably earlier empires such as Darius I and II, Xerxes, and Cyrus the Great. Ideals and customs from pre-Islamic Persia come through in the book and one can also sense the Indo-Aryan connections as well as the Zoroastrian connections. As the publisher’s preface notes the hero of these stories is often the nation of Persia, or Iran itself. There is more story than lore but I will try to pluck out some of the lore. Ferdowsi (935-1020 A.D.) compiled earlier versions in prose form and set it in poetic form. He then was said to have presented the poetic work to a Ghaznavid Turk king and did not get much interest possibly due to jealousy from other poets. He is said to have died in poverty but was post-humously declared an Iranian hero as his work kept alive and revived Persian nationalism and identity to some extent. A mausoleum was built for him in 1925. Below is basically a summary of the whole book as I read it.
The first king of Persia given is Kaiumers and it is said that people then were clad in tiger skins. He was said to be kind and just but the evil Ahriman (the adversarial principle in Zoroastrianism) and his lot – the Deevs (equivalent to the Sanskrit devas – good guys there but bad guys here – which likely represents some very early Aryan-Iranian philosophical split) – became jealous of the king and plotted against him. But the angel Serosch warned these children of Ormuzd (the Zoroastrian principle of good (similar to the Indian asuras – demonic there but angelic here.) Kaiumers’ grandson Husheng is said to have given men fire and taught them to water and fertilize the land. Husheng’s son Tahumers is said to have taught spinning and weaving. He overcame and captured some Deevs. In return for sparing their lives they taught men the art of writing. His son Jemshid was said to have ruled for 700 years and parceled men out into classes – priests, warriors, builders, and husbandmen. He is said to have instigated the practice of Nerouz, or the feast of the new day at autumnal equinox. Eventually though Jemshid succumbed to pride setting himself up as a god and the Mubids, or wisemen astrologers, despaired and the warriors and nobles rose against him. Meanwhile the son of a king from the Arabian desert was said to have made a pact with Ahriman and had to follow through by killing his father and becoming a powerful king named Zohak. Zohak joined the Persian nobles and became Shah and eventually Jemshid was found and killed. Ahriman is said to have manifested vicious serpents who could not be killed and required human brains for food. Two men were killed each day for them. Zohak is said to have ruled with the help of the Deevs for 1000 years. Then one day a blacksmith named Kawah came in complaining that 16 of his 17 sons had been offered to the serpents and he had had enough so Zohak spared his last son. Even so Kawah went and roused the people against him – setting his leather blackmith apron on a lance as a banner for the movement. Meanwhile a grandson of Jemshid was born called Feridoun. He was hidden in forests and among distant hermits. When Kawah’s movement found Feridoun the apron flag was bedecked with roum (silk?) and jewels. Zohak had gone east to Ind (India?) to look for Feridoun but Feridoun rode with an army to Bagdad and Jerusalem where the people accepted him for they hated Zohak. He overcame Zohak in battle when he returned and was about to kill him but the angel Serosch came and bid him chain Zohak to a rock in a distant desert to die of thirst in misery. Feridoun had three sons: Silim, Tur, and Irij. He tested them by appearing before them in the form of a fierce dragon. As is illustrated in the book several times – kings and princes must be skilled in the arts of magic. Irij reacted best to the dragon by fearing him not but also not being so foolish to attack him. Irij was given the kingdom of Iran while the other two were given distant kingdoms. Later the distant brothers became jealous and sought to conquer Iran. Irij was killed by his brothers but avenged by Minuchihr, the grandson of Feridoun with the help of Kawah and his son Karun and mighty Saum. The leather smith apron flag (the Kawanee) was again the flag of Iran. After this Feridoun died of old age. Young Minichihr was given to Saum, the Pehliva, (this term is not defined but seems to refer to the king’s or the Shah’s champion warrior) as a fosterling to be trained.
Saum ruled Seistan to the south of Iran. Saum sought a son and when one was finally born he was perfect except that his hair was white like that of an old man. Saum feared ridicule so he cast him out into the far wilderness. He was laid at the base of Mount Alberz and taken in the talons of the magical dragon-like bird called the Simurgh. (There is a peculiar note that the Simurgh’s house-nest could keep out the evil sway of Saturn suggesting that Ahriman is associated with Saturn, with binding, and possibly even with Varuna). The Simurgh had gathered the babe to feed her young but then decided to raise him as one of her babes. After he was raised to young adulthood his father Saum had a dream of him being alive and with birds and decided to go and meet him with apologies and repentance for his behavior. He named him Zal and he was brought before the Shah – Minichihr and the Shah told him what other would-be Pehliva’s were told: “And teach him forthwith the arts of war, and the pleasures and customs of the banquet, ...” Before Zal left the Simurgh gave him one of her breast feathers and told him that if he was ever in great danger to burn the feather and she would come to remove him from danger. Zal then traveled to Cabul and met Rudabeh, daughter of the king – but descended from the evil Zohak. They fell in love and he brought her back whereby Saum met with the Mubids to seek their fate in the stars. The stars said a great son was to be born from Zal that would be the greatest warrior of Iran. Minichihr the Shah was angered and sought to invade Cabul but Saum and Zal worked for peace. The Shah’s Mubids also saw great feats from the future son of Zal. When Zal returned the Mubids questioned him in riddles. He was asked six philosophical and astrological questions by six Mubids and the questions and answers are a beautiful poetry. Here is the dialogue for the fourth Mubid:
“See a green garden full of springs; A strong man with a sickle keen Enters, and reaps both dry and green; No word thine utmost anguish wrings.”
And Zal bethought him and replied-
“Thy word was of a garden green, A reaper with a sickle keen, Who cuts alike the fresh and the dry Nor heedeth prayer nor any cry: Time is the reaper, we the grass; Pity nor fear his spirit has, But old and young he reaps alike. No rank can stay his sickle’s strike, No love but he will leave it lorn, For to this end all men are born. Birth opes to all the gate of Life, Death shuts it down on love and strife, and Fate, that counts the breath of man, Measures to each a reckoned span.”
Rustem, the son of Zal and Rudabeh, was then born. Much of the rest of the saga involves the deeds of this mighty Pehliva. He kills a raging elephant at a young age and develops great warrior prowess. Several of the future battles are against a powerful king of Turan named Afrasiyab. Rustem found his steed Rakush (meaning lightning) in Cabul and Rakush was to be his mighty companion through all his days. Meanwhile Afrasiyab had killed A Shah and reigned in Iran for a short time but was thrown out by the people and by the army of Zal of Seistan. After Zew and Garshasp of the blood of Feridoun ruled for awhile there was then no Shah in Iran and Afrasiyab again gathered an army. Rustem sought out Kai Kobad of the blood of Feridoun to be enthroned as shah. They were able to make peace and Kai Kobad ruled for a hundred years and transferred power to Kai Kaous, his son.
Kai Kaous was deceived through his pride by Deevs into foolishly invading the Deev land of Mazinderan. The Deevs war with magic and swords are said to have little power there. Kai Kaous would have many episodes of being foolish due to his pride and Zal and Rustem would have to fix his mistakes. Kai Kaous set off with horsemen and his warrior-chief Gew into the land of Deevs and began plundering. The king of Mazinderan called upon the powerful White Deev who sent a black cloud of darkness to confound the plunderers. At this they were both blind and captive. Somehow a message got through to Rustem and he set out to free them. Rustem had some difficulty in traveling to Mazinderan. Rakush killed an attacking lion. He was early on able to feast on his favorite meal of wild ass. They could not find water and readied to die but they saw a wild ram and followed it to a watering hole. The ram was said to be a gift from Ormuzd to guide them. They were also attacked by a dragon and it took both to slay the dragon. They also overcame magicians. Finally he met a king of a border region to Mazinderan and procured valuable information from him – promising him the kingdom of Mazinderan when he freed Kai Kaous and his men. Rustem forced this king Aulad to guide him. Rustem was able to slay the White Deev and find Kai Kaous and his men. There he poured the blood of the White Deev into their eyes to restore their sight. Rustem then went to the King of Mazinderan and battled the giants there by hand gripping – which Rustem won but the King would not give in so Rustem went back to get the men and the battle raged for several days. Then Rustem and the King of Mazinderan were in single combat. The king hid in a rock through magic and eventually was drawn out and killed.
Rustem then met Tahmineh, daughter of the King of Samengan (apparently Turks). They made a son Sohrab but then separated into their own areas. After Sohrab was grown he made an army to attack Iran with the idea of putting Rustem on the throne instead of the proud and foolish Kai Kaous. Afrasiyab the opportunist joined him. At a white castle on the borders of Iran Sohrab called out for a warrior for single combat and was beaten but not killed by Gurdafrid, a woman. He was confounded at her might. He fell in love with her but she and all in the castle escaped before he could enter. So it ended up that Sohrab sought Rustem but none would tell where and who was Rustem and finally they ended up in single combat and not so unlike the story of the Irish hero Cuchulain unknowingly slaying his son, Rustem also slays Sohrab. He was deceived by the ministers of Kai Kaous. He was grieved and gave the signs of mourning – tearing his clothes, covering his head with ashes, tearing at his flesh, etc. – as did Tahmineh and the king of Samengan.
Kai Kaous then found a woman from the kingdom of Daghoui and she bore a son called Saiawush. Saiawush was trained in the arts of war by Rustem who fostered him. When he went back to prepare for the throne he was pursued by Sudaveh, one of Kai Kaous’s wives who when he refused her then accused him of evil and unsavory deeds. Kai Kaous then made him prove himself by leaping with his horse through a mount of fire. This is reminiscent of a similar plunge by Sigurd (in disguise) in the Norse/Germanic Saga of the Volsungs. He came through unharmed and so was presumed innocent.
When again attacked by Afrasayib, Rustem and Saiawush overcame the forces of Tur and made a peace, but Kai Kaous wanted complete vengeance and decided to attack Afrasayib. Saiawush had made a pact with the Turans and did not wish to break his vow. Saiawush then sought refuge and was given a small kingdom in the far reaches of Turan and was hid away with the blessings also of Piran, the great Pehliva of Turan. Saiawush married a daughter of Afrasayib, called Ferangis. Later one of Afrasiyab’s ministers told lies about Saiawush so that the the knights rose up against him and eventually killed him. His wife was imprisoned but the Pehliva Piran bid Afrasiyab to let her go and be as a daughter unto him. And Ferangis soon bore a son of Saiawush. The boy was given unto shepherds in the mountains of Kalun. Later he was to return and live with Piran and his mother Ferangis. Afrasiyab, who had spared him initially became worried about ill omens and dreams predicting him to do harm to Turan and so sought to test him. Piran instructed him to disguise his wits and he was deemed too stupid to cause harm and given back to his mother.
Kai Kaous, after much reprimanding by Rustem, roused an army to avenge the death of Saiawush with Rustem at its head. The Iranian army routed the Turanians and Piran counseled Afrasiyab to further hide the son of Saiawush in the far land of Khoten (near western Tibet). Rustem ruled in Turan for awhile then hearing that Kai Kaous was troubling things again went to be with his Shah to keep him in line. Afrasiyab came out of hiding and retook Turan and gathered armies again to threaten Iran. Gudarz, of the family of Kawah the smith, had a dream of being told by the angel Serosch, of a son of Saiawush hidden in the mountains. Indeed dreams and star omens form a big part of this saga. He sent his son Gew to find him. He found him and was in the process of bringing him back to Iran when Piran came after them as he feared the wrath of Afrasiyab. Gew overcame Piran but they could not kill him so they merely wounded him spilling blood from his ear to the ground thus Gew kept his vow and Piran was bound to a horse and sent off. When the son of Saiawush, Kai Khosrau, came to Iran there was strife among the nobles as some favored his other son Fiburz. So the Shah sent them both out to conquer a fortress of Deevs. Fiburz could not win with the sword. Kai Khosrau conquered the Deevs, proving himself skilled in the arts of magic, which was said to be a requirement of kings. Kai Khosrau then became Shah. There were two further wars with Afrasiyab and the Turanians, both lost by Iran due to deceits by their own men. Rustem was not called to fight in these battles. Rustem then avenged these wars and Afrasayib fled the throne again at the counsel of Piran. Back in Iran a Deev had taken the form of a wild ass and Rustem was called to deal with it which he did most wilefully.
In another story the fields of farmers were beset with wild boars wreaking havoc so the shah sent out Birzan, son of Gew, and he slew the boars but was tricked by his jealous companion into secretly visiting the daughters of Afrasayib – where he fell in love with Manijeh and was caught reveling in the house of the women by a knight of Afrasiyab. He was brought to be hanged but Piran intervened and bid Afrasiyab to confine him bound in a deep hole in the desert. Girgin, the jealous one who accompanied Byzun, returned to the Shah and said that Byzun was carried off by a Deev in the form of a wild ass but Kai Khosrau questioned him closely and determined that he was lying. He was able to determine that Byzun was alive and bound in a hole in the desert – by the magic of gazing into a crystal ball along with prayers to Ormuzd and wearing of a robe of roum (silk). Rustem was sent to get him. He went with a small troop disguised as merchants and found Manijeh and then Rustem released him but made him swear to forgive Girgin of his ill deeds. They then routed Afrasayib again causing him to flee and Byzum and Manijeh made it back to Iran for a happy life. Yet another war took place and the Turan Pehliva, Piran was asked to join the Iranians but refused saying he had oaths to Afrasiyab. Piran was slain in single combat by Gudarz. Then Afrasiyab sought truce through guile but he was without his main warrior and Kai Khosrau himself chased him for a few years before finally finding him and killing him. Then he decreed that the blood feud was ended, that vengeance was finalized. After ruling for 60 years Kai Khosrau decided that since he was descended from the race of Jemshid, that he could become too proud to rule so he undertook a sort of great spiritual retreat to pray to Ormuzd to take him from the earth. After praying and fasting for five weeks he had a vision of Serosch who told him to choose a successor and then prepare to be taken to be with Ormuzd. In the presence of Zal, Rustem, and Gudarz, the Shah passed his throne onto Lohurasp descended from the seed of the Shah Husheng and he was reluctantly accepted. Kai Khosrau went to the mountains and perished in an unknown place as did his nobles who did not heed his advice to return before a great snow storm would occur.
Lohurasp ruled well for awhile then gave the throne to his son Gushtasp. Lohurasp went to Balkh to be with Ormuzd (among the priests and prophets?) where he met the prophet Zerdusht who gave men the text of the Zendavesta, a main Zoroastrian text. Arjasp who had the throne of Afrasiyab thought little of this faith and urged Gushtasp to abandon it as well. But Gushtasp proclaimed that all should follow it and he sent his son Isfendiyar to Turan and other lands to enforce the faith by the sword. Then a man called Gurjam came before the Shah and told lies about Isfendiyar seeking to overthrow his father and Isfendiyar was imprisoned. Meanwhile Arjasp invaded Balkh and killed Lohurasp and captured the daughters of Gushtasp and burned the temples of Zerdusht. Gushtasp then released Isfendiyar to avenge them and first he routed Arjasp from his kingdom and demanded the throne from his now proud father. His father said that first he would have to free his daughters so he traveled a dangerous path overcoming seven dangers in seven days such as wolves, Deevs, a dragon, magicians, a great bird, a great snow, and a great flood. Then he entered the castle with wile disguised as a merchant with his warriors in wooden chests and overcame the enemy and killed Arjasp and freed his father’s daughters. But yet his father Gushtasp held the throne. The Shah then demanded that if he would succeed him that he should bring Rustem himself bound in chains before him since he was said by the Shah to have grown proud. Isfendiyar sent his son Bahman to find Rustem and give his demands. Rustem said that none would take him in chains but that after feasting he would go with his horse bound to Infendiyar’s horse and explain things to the Shah. Isfendiyar refused to send a messenger to Rustem which angered him yet they did feast together at Isfendiyar’s tents. Isfendiyar intended to fight Rustem the next day in single combat. Rustem was saddened for he would be reviled if he allowed the youth to put him in chains and he would be equally reviled if he killed the next Shah that he was sworn to protect. On the first day Isfendiyar sorely wounded Rustem and his steed Rakush with arrows but they swam back across the river ready to meet again the next day. Isfendiyar was said to be protected from harm by Zerdusht the prophet. But then Zal burned the feather of the Simurgh calling on the great bird to heal the wounds of Rustem and Rakush. She did this and then taught Rustem the secrets of fate bringing him far away to gather a branch from a tamarisk tree to make an arrow to slay Isfendiyar by shooting him in the eye. He shoots Isfendiyar in the eye fatally wounding him and Isfendiyar beseeches Rustem to train his son Bahman in the arts of war and the banquet.
A slave of Zal had a son who Zal named Shugdad and the star omens for him were very bad for the House of Zal and Rustem. He reared him gently and prayed to avert such evil and later sent him to Cabul where he and the King of Cabul made a pact to slay Rustem by making him and his horse fall into a hole fixed with sharp swords. This they did but Rustem as he lay dying asked for his bow and two arrows lest a lion come to eat him and with the first he shot through a tree killing Shugdad. Then he died. Feramorz, the son of Rustem, gathered an army and avenged his father and killed the King of Cabul. And as in moist of the deaths – he found the bodies of Rustem and Rakush and gave them full funerary honors and the people lamented for a long time for the great Pehliva was dead.
This book has many similarities with other Indo-European style sagas such as those of Germanic, Norse, Indian, Irish, Roman, and Greek origin. The emphasis on single combat and the rules of war and entertaining/hospitality are a similarity. Commitments to vengeance and the importance of keeping one’s word are both a matter of honor and perhaps the keeping of life energy. Courage is of course also highly valued but also valued is intelligence so mere courage by itself without being informed by intelligence is less valued as seen in the story where Irij wins the throne. Stories of both tragedy and just victory are kept in this collection as in others. Sagas were the histories, myths, and the movies of the day for each region and served to knit far tribes together in a more national unity. The magic of the benevolent Simurgh perhaps shows an ancient connection to the Near Eastern Neolithic Bird Goddess also venerated in old Europe.
Friday, July 1, 2011
Book Review: Traveling the Path of Compassion: A Commentary on – The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Ngulchu Thogme - by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje – translations by Ringu Tulku and Michele Martin (Densal and KTD Publications 2009)
This is a commentary on a much loved and much venerated text in Tibetan Buddhism as a concise summary of the Mahayana path. This commentary by the wise Karmapa is sharp and to the point. This is the first full length commentary of a text by the young Karmapa. Karmapa acknowledges his primary role of transmitting the blessings of the Kagyu lineage – the lineage of ear-whispered teachings, which includes many famed meditation masters. In the first section called – Preparing the Ground – he talks about the transference and assimilation of dharma teachings which he says is a gradual process of turning our very minds to new ways of thinking and being. The process, he says, is akin to gradually removing impurities from our innate purity – the refining of gold ore being the analogy given. As many Tibetan Buddhist teachers say – our motivation in seeking to assimilate these teachings is extremely important – and the best of motivations is the motivation to benefit others and the whole world.
He mentions that one can divide spiritual systems into two types: those with a philosophical system and those based on beliefs. Buddhism, of course, has philosophical tenets. He further divides Buddhism into two types: those that place emphasis on devotion to the teachings and words of the Buddha and those that emphasize reasoning and analysis. He says Tibetan Buddhism is of the latter type based on a gradual path of investigation. He places the text of the Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva in the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition and classifies it into the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school of philosophy. Madhyamaka favors philosophical and logical analysis to arrive at understanding and embraces the practices of the six perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and “deeper knowing or superior intelligence,” or wisdom. He further subdivides the teachings into their traditional vehicles and notes that all are valid and they are not in contradiction. The method of interacting with dharma teachings is to practice the ‘three activities’ of hearing (often in a formal teaching), reflecting or pondering what the teaching means, and meditating on the teaching to integrate it into our lives. He says that when one decides to cultivate bodhicitta, the mind of awakening, it becomes more necessary to integrate the teachings and to go beyond mere intellectual understandings:
“We have to experience what bodhicitta means so clearly and so strongly that it becomes one with our mind and blends with our way of being.”
He notes that the teaching of the 37 practices is also a teaching on Mind Training (Lojong) from the Kadampa tradition – which is a forerunner of both the Gelug and Kagyu schools of Tibet. He notes that this teaching is important to study because it is both concise and comprehensive.
Next he gives a bio of the author Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo (1295-1369). Raised by an uncle after his mother and grandmother died he became a monk at age 14. He was taught in the Sakya tradition and Dzogchen as well He studied all the schools and lineages. He became a great scholar and during a debate was able to answer the question, How are freedom from affliction and suffering similar? He noted that arhats may have attained freedom from afflictions but some still suffer due to the impelling force of their karma.
In one story once when secretly feeding a beggar infested with lice he traded garments with the beggar and took on the lice and became very sick and for many days let the lice feed on him until they apparently died satiated. Then he picked them off and made tsa tsas with them (clay statue mixed with ashes and debris). When asked where he would take birth after his impending death he stated that he wanted to be reborn in a place wherre he would be able to help sentient beings.
In a section about how to view emptiness Karmapa notes the Madhyamaka that emptiness and dependent arising arise together and are inseparable. He says their unity is the ultimate view of Buddhist philosophy. He takes the first line from the homage of the text: “Seeing that all phenomena neither come nor go,” and notes that this refers to freedom from mental constructs, or freedom from concepts. “All of these ways of grasping are often summarized into eight types: arising and cessation, extinction and permanence, coming and going, separate and the same.” All these mental constructs, he says, are empty of true existence. He also says that, “the experience of a phenomenon and its nature – are the same thing, even though we may define it in two different ways.” So the way things appear and the way they really are only seem to be different. This is how the enlightened mind knows – appearance and nature as the same. Knowing this way is said to engender compassion for those who are deluded and do not know in this way.
The first of the 37 practices is to listen, reflect, and meditate – to hear the instructions, consider well their meaning, and attempt to practice them authentically. He gives a story about a Kadampa Master explaining that the practice of Dharma is nothing other than cutting through one’s attachment. Karmapa makes the note that one might review one’s actions of the day just before one falls asleep – determining which actions were virtuous and which unvirtuous – committing to practice more virtue the next day and keeping a positive mind-state upon falling asleep.
Verse 2 is about giving up the familiarity of one’s home situations. The real practice is to give up attachment for those and that which one likes and to give up aversion to those and that which one dislikes – seeing the faults of friends and the virtues of enemies. The familiarity of home can be a bad influence if one is not mindful of habits. Distraction and confusion can be the results of indulging in overly familiar situations.
Verses 3 and 4 are about letting go of worldly concerns. Verse 3 recommends solitude as a support to practice. Karmapa talks about inner solitude versus outer solitude. He says that though it is more difficult, it is much better to develop inner solitude since all disturbances really come from within. Verse 4 is the practice of giving up concern for this life. That, he says, is the measure of the effectiveness of dharma practice. Concern with life is equivalent to the eight worldly concerns: loss and gain, pleasure and pain, infamy and fame, praise and blame. Basically we should examine to see if these things motivate us and if so we should seek to lessen their influence through reflecting and meditating on the teachings. He talks also about life beyond this life – about the possibility of an afterlife – not from a religious perspective – but from a perspective of intuitive logic.
“Death ....., it is the time when we transfer our light to another way of being. With this understanding, we can see that it is possible to dedicate our lives toward bringing light into the world for future generations as well as for our own future.”
Verses 5 and 6 are respectively about casting off the influence of bad companions and relying on the influence of good companions (spiritual friends or dharma teachers). Specifically, the verses say to give up negative friends and rely on positive friends but Karmapa notes that giving up or allowing their influence on us is the deeper practice. The practice is to not allow negative people to increase one’s own negativity and to allow the tamed mind of the teacher to influence one’s own training. Regarding the choosing of a spiritual teacher he says that we should first examine the potential teacher then decide. Once one has decided on a teacher one should follow the teacher’s instructions wholeheartedly, intuitively, and joyfully.
Verse 7 is about taking refuge not in worldly gods, but in those beyond the influence of worldliness. Here he talks a little about animism and notes that it can be beneficial but also that it is limited. He notes that animistic nature beliefs can have great benefit to the environment as people develop respect and a reciprocal relationship to nature. In Buddhism the ultimate refuge is in one’s own enlightened mind. But before enlightenment the refuge is in others who have discovered it and the mechanisms for doing so. The three jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the traditional Buddhist refuge. Buddha is doctor. Dharma is medicine. Sangha is nurse. He says there are four reasons to take refuge: 1) to free oneself from samsara, 2) to free others from fear, 3) to develop a universal unbiased spontaneous compassion that is free from attachment, and 4) to grow and extend that compassion to all sentient beings. Buddha refers to those who have succeeded in becoming enlightened so we try to emulate them. Dharma is the techniques for becoming Buddha so for this reason dharma is said to be the most important refuge. Sangha are those who aspire to virtue and so are best situated to help us. He notes the deeper sangha as those on the bodhisattva levels but also our fellow meditators can be sangha as well. He mentions war buddies, having seen the intensity of battle together, often make strong bonds – but says that may only be slightly comparable. He also re-iterates that ultimately – we are our own refuge.
Verses 8, 9, and 10 are about the karma of happiness and suffering. He says we should make a concerted effort to refrain from the traditional negative actions like killing, stealing, lying, etc. – simply because they tend to bring on worse situations not only for ourselves but to our children and future generations. Regarding happiness, he says that we should be aware that all conditioned states are impermanent so seeking to keep them is rather pointless. Verse 10 says:
- From time beyond time, our mothers have cared for us;
If they suffer, what good is our own happiness?
Thus, to liberate living beings beyond number,
To engender bodhicitta is the practice of a bodhisattva. –
Karmapa says that, “ The chance to give people something that truly benefits them does bring the greatest satisfaction.”
Verse 11 is about exchanging self for other:
- All suffering comes from wanting happiness for ourselves;
Perfect buddhas arise from the intention to benefit others.
Therefore, to truly exchange our happiness
For the suffering of others is the practice of a bodhisattva. –
Karmapa says that when we hold back from giving we cannot receive. He says that as living beings we all depend on one another and that our habit of self-cherishing blocks from our view the true extent that we are interdependent on one another. He notes that the practice of tong len, or sending and receiving, is a means to reverse self-cherishing. If we make a habit to wish for the happiness of others and for reduction of their suffering then we may reverse our tendencies to be self-absorbed and greedy for our own happiness alone. What we are doing in the practice is reducing ego-fixation. Since “I” does not exist without “not I” – it is not independent – and others as well as us wish to be happy – so since we wish for our own happiness as a matter of habit – why not make the new habit of wishing for the happiness of others as well? Although the practice is mainly for ourselves – to reduce our selfishness – it can also positively affect others as a secondary effect – as well as a positive bond.
Verses 12 through 19 are about dealing with adverse situations. These verses teach that we should not allow ourselves to become too affected by difficult circumstances such as loss of property, reputation, and even loss of life. We should not let these situations make us give up our love and compassion. We can see adversity as an opportunity to practice love and compassion. Indeed this is very difficult at times but we can at least aspire to such behavior before it happens. We should also not become discouraged if we have bad luck and not arrogant or proud if we have good luck. These conditions too will likely pass.
Verses 20 through 24 are about taming the mind. Karmapa says that anger is our real enemy and that taming it is our real practice. Tibetans are fond of saying that all sentient beings were once our kind mothers so we should be kind to all of our past mothers. Karmapa makes the interesting observation that all sentient beings were also once our enemy. Since all beings are equally our friends and enemies – then liking some and not liking others really makes no sense. He says that compassion should arise from a mind that sees this equality of beings.
Since attachment to sense objects is an affliction we should give it up when we notice it – so says verse 21. Verse 22 is about analyzing how we tend to grasp onto attributes or characteristics of subjects and objects. Through analysis, he says, we can bring an end to this habitual conceptualizing. This verse is a bit difficult for me to understand but I think it is warning not to get caught up in these characteristics or attributes that we tend to like or dislike. Verses 23 and 24 are about the illusory nature of pleasing objects/situations and painful ones. In both verses is the admonition to see them as fleeting and dream-like.
Verses 25 through 30 are about the six perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and discriminating wisdom. Generosity is a means to counteract attachment and giving with focus and mindfulness is said to be especially effective. Regarding discipline he notes that there can be a darker side to it – the demon of austerity – where one may undertake discipline with great struggle and suffering. One is much better off practicing discipline with joy and intelligence. He says we should feel a connection with the practice, or discipline, be very clear about how to do it and its effects, and let it become inspiring for us. The obstacle to patience is called – the demon of too much struggling, or too much forbearance. – Better that we practice patience as freely arising with our understanding and without engaging in extreme behavior. Similarly, the demon of diligence is struggling too hard. He suggests joyfulness and doing practices in a spontaneous and natural way. “True diligence happens with a lively interest and a joyful spontaneity. We do something because we see clearly that it is important and essential.” The demon of meditation is called – attachment to experience – the good and bad experiences that occur in meditation are not what is important. What is important is the extent to which our meditation serves as an antidote to our afflictions. The obstacle to wisdom is called – the demon of increasing poison. – This seems to refer to taking a very conceptual view of the relationship between subject, object, and action – one may become convinced of the superiority of one’s views. He notes that those with closed minds and rigid views are affected by this way of thinking:
“As we move along the path, inferior views are gradually surpassed by superior ones, until finally there is no view at all, nothing to be seized upon. Therefore, we should not go to an extreme and cling to one position as the truth. Our view of how things are is not something to grasp with a tight fist,”
Verses 31 through 35 are about avoiding pitfalls. The practice of dharma is taming our mind by constantly examining our own confusion. Karmapa says it is like learning to dance. First we watch ourselves in a mirror discovering and correcting our faults. Being very careful and attentive with our actions we can continually scan for mental afflictions and correct them. This is verse 31. Verse 32 is an admonition to avoid fault-finding, particularly of other Mahayana practitioners – but also to all says Karmapa. He says that this rarely helps and can make things worse. Verse 34 is about disputes arising from desires for honor and gain. Here he says to be careful and intelligent and try to make sure the practice or teacher you are following is genuine and has compassionate motivations. Verse 34 is about avoiding harsh words out of anger. He says that sometime harsh words can be beneficial if given out of compassion or care rather than anger but generally they are problematic. He says that before we say something we should consider how we would feel if those words were said to us. Verse 35 is about the difficulty of remedying our habitual reactions to afflictions. The verse says that with alert attention one should seize the weapon of the antidote and apply it. Karmapa gives one of his own methods of thinking of a particular teacher when he is about to indulge an affliction. He recalls the teachers warning: “Don’t be influenced by the afflictions. Be careful!”
Verse 36 is about being constantly alert and aware of the state of our mind. If we can apply this awareness while benefiting others we are engaging in a bodhisattva practice. The last of the 37 practices is the dedication of merit. Any merit we accumulate through our practices is dedicated to the awakening of all beings. Concluding the text is Thogme Zangpo’s own dedication and aspiration that all sentient beings become similar to Chenrezik:
- By virtue arising from these verses
Through ultimate and relative bodhicitta,
May all beings become equal to the Protector Chenrezik,
Who dwells in neither extreme of existence or peace. –