The Ash Tree

The Ash Tree

Far away to the east a sensitive man sat underneath a wide and sprawling tree, thinking about the world. If he had known, Odin would have narrowed his remaining eye and made his thoughts keen. He would have disapproved of the man’s soft body and mind, but he would have been very curious.

Odin was a very curious man, although his cold hard face made him seem forbidding.

His own tree was not so different to the tree of the man from the east, although Odin walked around it apprehensively. He would never sit down underneath it until he was too old to stand. Resting was tantamount to death.

(Or so he liked to make himself believe, but the old god was glad to find a bed of leaves or lush grass to sleep on after a long day’s wanderings.)

One gnarly hand was clutched around his staff as he paced, the other was fingering the noose that Frigg had woven for him. She probably was not the only wife in the world who, when confronted with the fact that her man was going to hang himself this evening, stopped and said, “I will weave the noose,” but she was the only one who did it out of love.

Odin and Frigg – now that’s a story.

She was beautiful as the dawn, as light caught in frosted branches, and he was the broken branch that gathers lichen and frost and the blow of axes. They loved each other, each in their very distinct way, but neither knew exactly why.

Perhaps because she made him a noose when he needed to hang himself, Odin mused with a grim smile.

But it was rather that she never minded it when he left on his interminable wanderings and that she was a place where many threads ran together only to continue onward, each in its very own direction, the end of which only Odin himself knew…if he did.

He was so used to being on his own that it startled him when she made something for him, even if it was just a bowl of hot soup.

The branch up there looked promising. Odin looped the noose and threw it. It was a good throw and the loop slipped over a broken stub and held tight.

Why was she on his mind now, when it should be blood and bone? He was about to go into the realm of the dead – it was a new journey, even for Odin – so why did he think about home and hearth?

The wind picked up and blew snow in Odin’s face.

His sons had counseled him to protect himself with witchcraft. It was always them, Thor the simpleton, and Loki, the schemer, who gave such mindless advice while the women just stood aside and laughed.

There were a thousand rites and rituals for protection, but Odin cared not about a single one of them. The noose shimmered in the dark and he imagined Frigg closing her hand around his throat and throttling him.

She had strong hands, long fingers.

The darkness would be good.

Huginn dropped from the sky and sat on the branch, next to the loop. Muninn cawed somewhere in the night sky. His two ravens were true companions, but this journey would require different company.

They came from the hills as Odin put the noose around his neck. Two large wolves; one was grey and the other black with white patches all over. They moved with the sureness of many hunts and the world around them changed.

Odin felt a tinge of fear and it made him laugh. This was the moment. Would he be able to go through death and return? He was a god, so it was not unlikely.

He remembered the many humans he had seen on his wanderings, the many slain, the many desperate, the sick and those who would have done everything, everything for another breath of air.

The black wolf looked at him with a strange intelligence and Frigg’s noose began to work its magic. It tightened around Odin’s throat and began pulling him upward.

The staff fell to the floor, its tip touching the paw of the grey wolf, as Odin’s hands clutched at the rope, then fell, limply, to his sides.

The old god was dead.

The other world was not so different from this one. Frigg’s noose was a silver thread around his neck and the ash tree, Yggdrasil, was bone white. The wolves came and smelled and licked his hands and Odin smiled grimly.

This was a journey he had never taken and he was looking forward to it.

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The Story of Siddhartha

 

Buddhism is a child of India. It was born in the form of Prince Siddhartha. It was also born out of desperation, because the Vedic system had become a prison, encapsulating every living being in a fixed and unchangeable form. You are born a beggar, so you will be a beggar until you die and then are reborn as a gnat.

So the great achievement of Buddhism was this: humans can change.

The prince himself was changed numerous times and every time this change brought him great pain. He went out of the palace of his parents, a pampered youth, somebody who believes the world is at his feet or in the palm of his hand. Up until this day he had known nothing but riches, three lavish meals a day, soft clothes and the beauty or anger of his own thoughts. This image is most of us, who have not seen suffering or have never been forced to change…we live in a prison of our own thoughts, beautiful and frightening mirages that we take to be our lives.

The first time the prince went out he saw a beggar. What did he do? Probably ignored him or did not know what to do with the man clutching his hand with such a hard grip until some attendant shooed him away, kicked him maybe, berated him or gave him a coin to get rid of him. But he couldn’t understand. Weren’t all people rich and well-fed? The gaunt and hungry face and the burning eyes of the man followed the prince deep into his own dreams. He felt unwell until he understood that he had begun to accept the beggar’s suffering. He had taken it into himself. This could be us, if we begin to accept what we don’t want to accept. We will suffer, yes, but this is simply change.

The second time the prince went out he brought coins with him and distributed them to the beggars. Then he saw a woman with sores, gruesome wet and slimy-looking wounds over her legs. She refused his coins, just looked at him with eyes full of pride and pain. So again the prince returned and again his dreams were troubling and painful. He looked at the bodies of those around him and saw on them those wounds, blooming like the most frightening of flowers. They came out of nowhere and caused such great pain. He went to the palace doctors, obsessively so, and had himself checked over and over again and took pills and tinctures with him. This could also be us, if we accept suffering but become afraid of it.

The third time the prince went out he had with him coins and medicine and was awfully nervous and fussy, making his caravan stop anytime he saw someone malnourished or pale so he could give and give in order to feel better. On this trip he came across something that would frighten him very badly: a woman holding a bundle. He went up to her, inquiring whether he could help her and her child and he saw the empty face of the woman and realized that the child she clung to was no longer living. He hurried away, full of fear, but this was one fear that he simply could not conquer by fussing about it or by changing himself to accommodate it. Gradually he lost all interest in the beautiful pastimes of the court, stopped smiling at the young women who visited him to talk to him or hear him recite poetry and lost himself in gloomy, pensive moods. This is us, if we get lost in what we call today a depression.

The prince realized that would have to change something else. Not the clothes he wore, not the words he said, not the things he ate. No fasting and no gluttony would help him, no drugs and no medicine. He would have to change himself, be a prince no longer. So one morning he left his name behind the way other people leave a finished book on the bedside table.

He left the woman who was his wife behind, too, and that is something many women rightfully complain about. Couldn’t he have explained himself to her? Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would have come with him. At least she would have deserved a choice.

Her name, by the way, was Yashodhara. But this is as it is. He did not give her that choice. He also left his son behind and that, perhaps, is damning, but it is what he did. Could Siddhartha have become Buddha if he had gone with his family or would he have had to give up his quest in order to take up a plow or learn a trade to feed the two?

I wonder what a woman would actually say to this…Yashodhara, in her material situation, probably wouldn’t have been too bad off. The son, especially if he was fond of his father, might have been a problem, but she could have lived a comfortable life even without Siddhartha. I wonder as well if women consider all that talk about giving up your desires about as silly as they consider men’s talk about going to war and about honour.

Perhaps his mother and wife got together after he left and talked about how silly he was just to comfort each other…of course this wouldn’t bring him back, so eventually they would have to reconcile themselves somehow.

Anyway, what was his quest? This quest that drove him from all comforts his world offered to him? What made him give up food and sex and warmth?

To understand life and death. To understand change. To understand now and forever.

Is that a worthwhile trade? Perhaps…perhaps not. After all the ultimate fates of a man who chooses a life at home with his family and the man who remains alone in order to gain understanding don’t differ too much.

Whatever you or I may think, Siddhartha – although he was no longer Siddhartha, but just some guy named either Nobody or That One, depending on whom you believe – chose that lonely path and went into the woods to meditate.

Meditation back then meant a lot of physical self abuse. Punch nails through your tongue, eat dirt, hang on one limb from a tree. The same stuff that an old one-eyed wanderer did in Europe’s North when he hung himself from the ash tree. Denial of the body – asceticism.

So That One lost a lot of weight until not even his wife and mother could have told the difference between him and a skeleton. He also gained a lot of scars. But he was none the wiser for it.

After a few years of that he decided to start eating rice again and he found that he genuinely liked it. He could have eaten a hundred bowls, but he moderated himself. He realized that if he stopped doing something he liked at a certain point the enjoyment didn’t overtake him completely, nor did it disappear entirely. That was something to remember.

He made himself a robe of old linen that was given to him by a petitioner and wore it comfortably. He clumsily carved himself a bowl and ate from it. After all this self-torture and constant pain such small things seemed an inestimable comfort to him.

Some people say he was fasting and meditating for fifty days, but really it came quite suddenly to him. He had found a tree that he liked and sat underneath it and rested for a bit.

Actually he had given up meditation by this point or – as more romantic souls say – everything had become meditation to him.

Very dimly he remembered a wife and a son, a young man who would by now have become a prince and he felt at peace.

The animals speaking to him? Now that’s a tricky bit. Just like St. Francis…are they meant to represent something, perhaps the lower urges of men that he had learned to curb? Or are they actually animals because he has become so silent that he now understands the speech of all things?

So under that tree a curious thing happened to him. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet – and he really liked to sleep because he was becoming older – but all of a sudden he woke up. How strange that was. He knew so many things he didn’t know and contrariwise there were so many things he had thought he knew that he actually had no clue about.

He had finally changed and That One became Buddha – the Awakened One.

In his heart perhaps he preferred to be That One or No One, but now there were so many things to do and the world was so full of people that he got up from underneath the tree and started walking again, trusting his feet to know the way, his tongue to know the words and his eyes to see what was truly there.

Still Shiva dances…

The first part is the German version of the article – please scroll down for an English translation.

Er beschmiert seinen Körper mit Asche, lässt seine Haare zu Knoten verfilzen und sein Ziel ist tapas, Hitze, geistige Kraft mit der er die Realität formen kann. Er meditiert vor Flammen, in eisigen Flüssen und auf Gräbern. Die Gesellschaft kann ihm gestohlen bleiben. Er findet seine Freunde in den Geistern und Göttern, die zahlreich über diese Erde ziehen.

Der Sadhu. Der Weise in der safranfarbenen Robe, der heilige Bettler. Einer der faszinierenden Archetypen Indiens.

Sadhus sind verehrt, gefürchtet. Sadhus können politische Macht haben, im Fernsehen gleich den amerikanischen Televangelisten auftreten, oder in kleinen Schrebergartenhütten in Rishikesh wohnen (angenommen ein Schrebergarten hätte als Dekorationen Chillums – Haschpfeifen – und   menschliche Schädel anstelle von Gartenzwergen). Sadhus können angsteinflößend sein, primitiv, schrullig. Sadhus können Betrüger sein – Kriminelle, die sich die Roben überwerfen, weil sie hoffen der Verfolgung so zu entgehen. Sadhus können Wildhüter sein, Seelsorger, Beamte, Wilde.

Viele Inder entscheiden sich, am Ende ihres Lebens die sozialen Zwänge hinter sich zu lassen und allem an Geld und Besitz zu entsagen um sich auf den Tod vorzubereiten; eine Art von Hardcore Pensionierung – auch diese Menschen sind Sadhus, heilige Pilger auf dem Weg ins Jenseits.

Manche entscheiden sich aus den unterschiedlichsten Gründen, schon sehr jung Sadhu zu werden. Vielleicht weil sie eine innere Stimme leitet, vielleicht weil sie von ihren eigenen Eltern verstoßen und in einer Sadhugemeinschaft aufgewachsen sind. Viele von ihnen stellen diesen Archetypen dar – der Mensch, der seine äußere Hülle vernachlässigt um das innere Feuer zu pflegen.

Diese klassischen Sadhus sind eine extreme Form von Shaiviten, Anhänger von Shiva, dem Vollender des vedischen Triumvirates. Ihr Äußeres ist ihrem Gott nachempfunden. Zu vielen Festen begegnet man blau angemalten Figuren, die mit Dreizack und intensivem Blick durch die Menge schreiten. Auch diese Männer spielen die Rolle von Shiva.

Shiva ist ein exzessiver, arroganter und emotionaler Gott. Seine Macht steigt ihm oft zu Kopfe und entlädt sich dann in einem furchtbaren Tanz aus Zorn – einem Vorboten des Nataraj, dem Tanz, der laut Legende die Welt zerstören wird. Wenn ein Inder, der die Göttergeschichten kennt und schätzt, von mächtigen Menschen hört, die Selbstkontrolle verlieren und sich in Destruktivität verlieren, weiß er dass da Shiva am Werk ist. Die Götter funktioneren als das, was wir in der westlichen, rationalen Mentalität als Psychologie verstehen.

So dürfen sich Shaiviten auch oft schamlos im Zorn ergehen. Natürlich ist es nicht gern gesehen, wenn man sich im Zorn entlädt und materielle und emotionale Zerstörung anrichtet, aber man ist sich bewusst, dass in der Zerstörung der Kern für den Neuaufbau und Neubeginn steckt. Also ist so etwas auch auf menschlicher Ebene gesehen kein Grund zur Verzweiflung – es ist einfach Shivas Tanz.

Shaivismus ist weit verbreitet in Indien und hat wie viele Religionen mystische und praktische Ausformungen. Zu den mystischen zählen die Verkörperung der Gottheit durch Gläubige und die Akzeptanz der Welt und Gottheit als etwas Ungreifbares. Die praktischen Ausformungen sind unter anderem Feuerrituale und der Shiva Lingam, der penisförmige Altar, der sicher jedem Indienbesucher schon unter die Augen gekommen ist. Er steht für Liebe und auch sexuelle Kraft als die unsichtbaren  Formen, die die Welt zusammenhalten.

Der shaivitische Sadhu stellt eine körpergewordene Erinnerung an das Göttliche dar. Sein Ziel ist in vielen Fällen die Wahrnehmung der Welt, ohne Grenzen. In manchen Fällen – die shaivitischen Schulen haben sich in den Jahrhunderten ihrer Existenz oft gespalten und umgeformt, besonders nach der Entstehung und Verbreitung des Buddhismus – hat er ein weltliches Ziel, in anderen ist sein Ziel rein göttlich. Manchmal ist er ein alter Mann, schwach vor seiner eigenen Sterblichkeit, manchmal ein Gott.

Aus einer westlichen Perspektive ist man vielleicht geneigt, das als Schwachsinn abzutun. Allerdings haben auch die Vernunft und der Intellekt ihre Grenzen und man sei geraten, solche Menschen als Erinnerungen anzusehen, dass das Leben über die Grenzen des menschlichen Sozialgefüges hinausgeht und dass die Verpflichtungen, denen wir Tag für Tag gegenüberstehen ultimativ doch nur ein winziger Teil des Ganzen sind.

His body smeared with ash, his hair knotted and dirty – his aim is tapas, divine heat and power of the mind, strong enough to shape reality. He is meditating between fires and in the icy currents of mountain streams. Society means nothing to him. His friends are the spirits and the gods that roam this earth in their vast numbers.

The Sadhu. The wise man in the saffron robe. The holy beggar. One of the most fascinating archetypes of India.

Sadhus are as venerated as they are feared. Sadhus can be politically powerful. They can appear – like American televangelists – on their own TV channels. They can live in small summer cottages in Rishikesh like content pensioners with a penchant for the occult. They can be fearsome, primitive, slightly loony. They can be fakes – criminals who don the robes to escape from custody.  Sadhus can be rangers, pastors, clerks or wild men.

Towards the end of their lives many Indians decide to shrug off the demands and duties of social life, to forsake all their wealth and their possessions in order to prepare for the end of their lives. A kind of hardcore retirement. These people, too, are sadhus; holy men on a pilgrimage to the beyond.

Some decide, for a variety of reasons, to begin this path when they are very young. Perhaps they are guided by an inner voice or perhaps their own parents threw them out and they found solace with a group of sadhus. Many of them invoke this archetype – the human who neglects his outward appearance in order to feed the inner fire.

Those classical sadhus, half-naked, dirty, are an extreme Form of what is called Shaivites. They are followers of Shiva, the divine terminator of the vedic triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Their outward appearance is an impersonation or transformation of their god. One can meet them at many festivals, striding through the crowd, their bodies painted blue, carrying a trident and a piercing gaze. Those men, too, impersonate Shiva.

Shiva is an excessive, arrogant and emotional god. Quite often he finds himself incapable of controlling his strength and unloads in a terrible dance of anger and wrath – a precursor of the Nataraj, the dance that, legend tells, will destroy the world.

Whenever an Indian who values the old stories hears tales of powerful people losing their temper and becoming destructive, he knows that Shiva had a hand in this. The tales serve as something that rational Western thought would call psychology.

Shaivites often are allowed to indulge in their wrath without shame. Of course it is not a pleasant thing to witness another explode in anger and wreak material and emotional havoc, but one is aware that each act of destruction sows a seed of rebuilding and means a new start. As such those acts are accepted, quite plainly, as the dance of Shiva.

Shaivism is widespread in today’s India and like many religious movements it has a mystical and a practical aspect to it. The mystical aspect incorporates the fact that a believer can become the god and the acceptance that both the world and the god are impersonal. Practical aspects include old fire rites and the shiva lingam, the penis-shaped altar. It symbolizes love and also sexual strength as the invisible forms that hold the world together.

The shaivite sadhu is a corporeal memory of the divine, the god momentarily made flesh. In many cases his goal is the perceive the limitlessness of existence. In some cases – shaivite schools have been subject to many changes and schisms, especially after the rise of Buddhism – he has a worldly aim, in other cases his aim in life is completely divine. Sometimes he is an old man, frail before his own mortality, in others he is a god.

From a western perspective one may be tempted to call it all nonsense. But like everything else reason and the intellect have their limits and it is advisable to consider such people as reminders that life goes far beyond the limits of the human social weave and that all the duties that we face on a day to day basis are only a tiny fragment of everything that life can be.