War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

The Talking Stones of Yaxuna

The Mayan Glyph Stairway at Copán

The Maya believe that certain inanimate objects, such as stone glyphs and statues had souls. The following excerpt, entitled “The Talking Stones,” comes from Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by archeologists David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker:

When I read Paul Sullivan’s book [Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars] it helped me understand something I had witnessed among the village people of Yaxuna who worked with me on the nearby ancient city. When excavation first began, the villagers were deeply concerned that we might try to remove stones, especially carved stones, from the ruins. I had difficulty understanding their anxiety. I explained to them that sometimes artifacts had to be removed for analysis, but that they would be returned faithfully when safe storage could be built for them. The matter was of such importance to the villagers that finally Don Pablo, the local shaman, took it personally  upon himself to ensure that no carved stones be removed from the site. There were some strained moments when the archeologists of the Mexican government insisted that carved stones be taken to safekeeping and the Yaxuna people insisted that they stay; but the tensions were finally resolved. The stones of Yaxuna are still there, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, and now I know why the matter loomed so large: such stones are likely k’an che’, seats of supernaturals.

I had one other encounter with Don Pablo and talking stones. One day in the summer of 1989, after he had done some work on the camp kitchen, I found a clear glass marble in the area. Thinking it belonged to Don Pablo and was one of his saso’ob, the “lights” he used when focusing spiritual forces, I took it next door to him that evening. He took the marble and inspected it carefully.

“Yes,” he said finally, “this is a stone of light.”

Then he smiled, “However, it won’t speak until it has been soaked in maize gruel, sak-a’, and then it will speak only Maya.”

I Go To See the Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

In April 1991, I drove up to Santa Maria to rendezvous with my friend and business associate George Hoole. The next day we were going to go to the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) to see the 14th Dalai Lama give a talk. My attendance at this talk cost me a great deal: Driving up the San Marcos Pass on State Route 154 in second gear, I burned out the engine of my 1985 Mitsubishi Montero. That was just the beginning of my problems with the Mitsubishi, which lasted another four years before being T-boned by an elderly woman who was afraid of being late to a doctor appointment.

Although I knew my visit was going to cost me dearly, I remembered the Dalai Lama’s talk with great fondness. It is the only time I ever saw one of the world’s great religious leaders in person. I have read several of his books since then and realize that he is a living treasure. When he passes on, which can be any time now, the world will be without a man of his spiritual stature. Of course, the Chinese will be delighted: They will simply choose their own Dalai Lama. Will the exiled Tibetans in Dharamshala, India choose their own candidate? Who knows?

Present at UCSB when George Hoole and I were there was the late Spalding Gray, author of Swimming to Cambodia, who did an interview with the Dalai Lama which was published by Tricycle. In that interview, the following appeared:

Do you ever entertain the distractions, invite them into your meditation and let all of these women in bikini bathing suits that you must see here out by the pool come into your meditation? As a monk, I have to avoid that experience, even in my dreams, due to daily practice. Sometimes in my dreams there are women. And in some cases fighting or quarreling with someone. When such dreams happen, immediately I remember, “I am monk.” So that is one reason I usually call myself a simple Buddhist monk. That’s why I never feel “I am the Dalai Lama.” I only feel “I am a monk.” I should not indulge, even in dreams, in women with a seductive appearance. Immediately I realize I’m a monk. Then sometimes in my dreams I see fighting with a gun or a knife, and again I immediately realize “I am a monk, I should not do this.” This kind of mindfulness is one of the important practices that I do the whole day long. Then your particular point, about beautiful things or men, women, things that attract: the analytical meditation counters that attachment.

For example, the sexual desire. It is very important to analyze, “what is the real benefit?” The appearance of a beautiful face or a beautiful body—as many scriptures describe—no matter how beautiful, they essentially decompose into a skeleton. When we penetrate to its human flesh and bones, there is no beauty, is there? A couple in a sexual experience is happy for that moment. Then very soon trouble begins.

I can see that if I ever wanted to achieve enlightenment, I have a long way to go.

 

Fending Off the Wrathful Deities

Another Eastern Holy Book I Forgot to Mention Yesterday

Memory is like that. You write about the importance of A and B in your life, and then you realize you have left out C. In addition to the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, the other work of Eastern wisdom you have totally forgotten is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In many ways, it’s he most important of the three. The Christians have their Hell, the Jews their Sheol, the Muslims their Jahannam … but for the Tantric Buddhists of Tibet, Hell was a way station on the road to rebirth.

When one died, one entered an in-between state known as the Bardo. The goal for a Tibetan was to prepare oneself to be assailed by wrathful deities. By expressing fear at this confrontation, the departed soul was delivered over for rebirth. The wrathful deities are, in a way, like the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: They were there only for Scrooge’s benefit.

According to the Buddhist Weekly, one of the worst of the wrathful deities was Palden Lhamo, illustrated above:

With a world-shaking cry the figure, now blue black, starts to its feet… The giant figure pounds forward, wild hair streaming upward, tied around with snakes. The massive body, nearly naked, girt only in a tiger-skin, wears skulls—pretty, staring skulls—as jewels. Snake-enwreathed, fang-mouthed, three eyes glaring bloodshot from an awesome face, he marches onward bellowing challenge…

The goal in Tantric Buddhism is not heaven, of which there is no sign in the religion, but annihilation. That is the only true nirvana. To be reborn is a defeat of sorts.

In many ways—even before one dies—one is always fending off wrathful deities, be they Trump or one’s boss or one’s wife. In many ways, fending off the wrathful deities is not only important after one’s death, but also during one’s life.

 

 

The Bhagavad Gita

Arjuna and Krishna with the Pandava Army at Kurukshetra

Of all the deep books of Eastern wisdom, the two that have most influenced me are the  Tao Te Ching of Laotse and the Bhagavad Gita, a selection of some 700 lines from India’s national epic, The Mahabharata. Both are relatively short, yet abruptly different from the theistic traditions of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic faiths.

I was first introduced to the Bhagavad Gita in 1975, on the bus between Chichen Itza and Mérida in Yucatán. I was sitting next to a cute Canadian girl who, as I recall, berated me for being too pompous. (She was right.) She gave me her copy of the Hindu scripture as a corrective to my sense of self-importance. Since then, I have read it several times.

Arjuna is with the god Krishna at the battlefield of Kurukshetra. As he scans the Kaurava army arrayed on the field against him, he expresses doubts about his role in fighting the battle. The Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on the subject:

Look upon pleasure and pain, victory and defeat, with an equal eye. Make ready for the combat, and thou shalt commit no sin.

Krishna continues:

He who wherever he goes is attached to no person and to no place by ties of flesh; who accepts good and evil alike, neither welcoming the one nor shrinking from the other—take him to be the one who is merged to the Infinite.

In the end, Arjuna resolves to commit himself to the battle. This is all very different from turning the other cheek, and certainly a good deal bloodier.

The quotes above are from the edition I read most recently, the translation for Shambala Pocket Classics by Shri Purohit Swami.

 

 

 

 

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos Celebrants at Cabot’s Museum in Desert Hot Springs

In the Catholic liturgy, today is All Souls’ Day, which the Mexican culture has enriched with its Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Mexican feast day is much healthier than our own Halloween: Families go to the cemeteries with a picnic lunch, which they eat by the grave of their loved ones. Years ago, I was on a bus between Mazatlán and Durango on November 2 with a number of villagers headed to celebrate. The bus was full, so I helped a young mother hold her baby from time to time as she tended to her other children.

We see death as an embarrassment, some kind of failure. Too bad, because we all die; and that death is part and parcel of our lives. We deny it at our own risk, because when we least expect it, to springs out like a jack-in-the-box and catches us all unawares. One of the strengths of Mexican culture—and I believe there are many—is that people do not try to sweep the inevitable under the rug.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, at Chichen Itza

The Aztecs and Maya used to fight wars among themselves and their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners who were sacrificed to the gods. At Chichen Itza, there was a large platform called the Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, to hold a pyramid of skulls of these sacrificial victims. There were a number of grisly rituals connected with these sacrifices, such as cutting out the heart of victims with an obsidian knife and kicking the body down the pyramid steps, skinning the victims and having the priests wear the skins. There was even some cannibalism. Eventually, with the Spanish invasion, these rituals were suppressed; but the celebration of life’s fragility became a part of the culture.

Maybe this is what Trumpf is afraid of by these “invasions” from Latin America. He’s afraid for his own head, perhaps. They can have it.

 

Multiplicity

There Is Just So Much to Remember

Last Monday, I was privileged to see a demonstration of Indian temple dancing at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The young woman who runs Soorya Performing Arts in Woodland Hills casually mentioned in her introduction that there are a million gods in the Hindu religion. It is possible she wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Huffington Post, there are upwards of 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. Another source says there are 330 million. That is approximately one god for each person currently living in the United States. Your own personal deity, so to speak.

Doesn’t that make things complicated? Now India is a very Hindu country—so Hindu in fact that Buddhism, which was born there, is more or less eradicated from the entire subcontinent. The ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is virulently Hindu. And yet there are 22 different languages spoken in different parts of India. With all that wild multiplicity, I have a difficult time focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is relatively unimportant. If you pray to one particular god, say Vishnu, does not another god, say Prajapati, get envious and turn your earnest pleas into a curse on your family for 27 generations?

It just so happens that I am going through a period of my life which is heavily influenced by Indian vegetarian cuisine. For the last three weeks, Martine has been going through some intestinal ailment which does not allow her to eat my cooking, and what she can eat barely counts as cooking at all in my book. So I have been making some authentic spicy vegetarian curries and bhajis. Also, I am reading Eric Newby’s travel classic Slowly Down the Ganges.

Now if I become interested in the Hindu religion as well, do I risk fragmenting myself into 330 million pieces?