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Of Water and the Spirit

February 23, 2014

by Stephen Damon

Recently, I read an account of a shaman who was born and raised in tribal West Africa. (Of Water and the Spirit, by Malidoma Patrice Some) When I began reading, I felt as if I were reading a fairy tale from another world that I had never even imagined. In this world, a tree became a huge green lady and a dead man walked and talked. Bodies were transformed into light as they moved into other dimensions of reality. And yet as I continued, I began to get a sense that the author’s story was, in a way, my own story.

I felt that the author’s traditional tribe, the Dagora, represent the deepest part of not only himself but all of us. We all have a deep part of ourselves that feels strange and unknown, even “tribal,” as if it were from a “different time and place.” This part of ourselves, which is often first experienced in dreams, has existed before we were born into the lives that we have. When we first make contact with it, it feels strange and impersonal and yet strangely familiar.

In the story I read, the author was kidnapped at the age of four, by French Jesuits who educated him in the ways of Christianity and the West. When he was 20, he managed to escape and make his way back to his tribe. While the details of his wonderful journey back to his people seemed strange, once I allowed his tale to sink below my discursive mind into my heart, I saw that I was also taken away from my “inner east,” and been forced to live in a way that does not support my True Nature. Like the author, I have found that a big part of my Zen practice has been to “unlearn” most of what I have acquired not only from my school studies but also from the many societal influences in my life.

The way back to the source of our lives is very difficult and requires that we have to “die” to the lives we have been living so that we can be reborn. The author recites a tribal song:

…To become a man I must go,
Into Nature’s womb I must return
But when I come back,
The joy of rebirth for you I will sing.

This song reminds me of a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus tells Nicodemus: “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

We must see that we have lived in exile from our true natures and must turn around and return to the source of being itself. At any given moment we need to make a conscious decision about which way to turn. Do we continue our forgetful lives forever moving away from our center or do we turn around and shine the “light within and then just return?” (The Song of the Grass Hut). Can “we take the road we always forget to take [and hear] the smell of the things forgotten.” (Of Water and the Spirit) We learn that we do not belong to ourselves but to the universe, and everything we do must be in service to it. As it is said in Mahayana Buddhism: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”

I see that reading a book like this is not about acquiring something new as much as it is remembering or reclaiming something that has been “lost” in me. If I can keep this attitude I will see that whether I read a Buddhist Sutra or a passage from the Bible or an account of a Native American Medicine Man, I am essentially reading about how the deepest part of ourselves is expressed in different parts of the world. To paraphrase Dogen, To study any religion is to study the self.


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