Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pioneering Relationship

Venus of the Fels Cave-- click here for the full story in Speigel.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the earliest humans, and where spiritual endeavor began... And happily these thoughts were rewarded by word earlier last week that the oldest artistic representation of the human form had been found in Germany (just click by the picture). While the Venus of Willendorf, which is ever my favorite piece of art, has been dated to about 24,000 bce, this pretty lady has been dated to a few thousand years prior. (Which really says something about art's original purpose, and a bit about our early orientation about what was meaningful, don't you think?)

Prehistoric art was a favorite of mine to study in art school, and I'll always kick myself for not designing my bachelor's around the subject (I ended up focusing more on American Indian art-- I was in New Mexico, after all). Yet I've remained touched by the people who created this beauty "just a thousand grandmothers ago", as one professor put it.

Another interest I have is in discovering an American Zen tradition that is less a copycat version of Japanese culture, and more an appropriate blend of spiritual need, religious heritage and zazen. For me, this has meant a heartfelt journey into the religions of my ancestors-- if anything, to gain a greater sense of connection to our Earth (many of them were, after all, earth-oriented traditions) and a better understanding of where I'm from.

Where the two meet is about creating an authentic religious practice-- and it has led me to some fascinating places. One such place is Scotland; particularly Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History. This book has been so utterly helpful in gliding me through a history that has always been more than a little difficult for me to grasp simply because it's always been done so icily.. Alistair Moffat begins it with a bit of an essay about why-bother, as "prehistory" often suggests in its air a sense of "not being quite the real thing".

I recall first learning about those long-ago ancestors during my first art history course, those who painted caves somewhere in France and being stunned by their creativity and heart. And yet somehow, I never felt a true part of them, as we didn't dive very deeply into knowing them, for quickly it was off to the "real" cultures of Egypt and Greece and finally to Rome, the realest of all the real cultures.

How sad it makes me, and Alistair too it seems, that the harsh judgments of our invaders from so long ago could remain to haunt so thoroughly that we pass right over the history of our forbears in favor of the ones who could conquer and divide us. Think of how we still refer to the earliest of them, these cave people, rough and uncivilized... And yet, as Alistair points out, even as we still "despise our forbears", "these people were not aliens. They were our first parents."

7 million years ago: the first humanoid appeared. 100,000 years ago, the first homo sapiens; and by 29,000 bce, the first of these were in what we know as Britain. 16,000 bce was the height of the ice age, and by 11,000, the ice had retreated so that Scotland was ice-free. They've found an arrowhead dating to 10,800-- really, this number is so far beyond what I can really grasp, but there it is-- and the earliest hunter-fisher settlement in Britain, Howick Haven, dating 7,800 bce.

These numbers are fine, but what I find most intriguing about this book is Alistair's exploration into who they were. Pioneers, he reminds us; hunters and fishers seeking what can be found in the rich, green lands to the north, likely from the Dordogne valley of "France". He cites Bryan Skeys' research of mitochondrial DNA, the sequences that can be traced through women only. In his sampling of populations in Britain, he found 7 "origin women", clan mothers he calls them, 6 whom 40% of today's Europeans can call "mama". The seventh clan mother was from what we know now as Iraq, and she signals the introduction of a farming cultural revolution...

But for now, I am most interested in digging deeper into the mind of this "prehistoric" mama, mostly intrigued by the utter tenderness of her tribes' treatment of those who had died. One mother was found with head and feet atop deer antlers; around her neck, a fine necklace created by the teeth of 43 different stags. But by her side? Her infant, laid in the nest of a swan's wing, with a small flint knife by its waist.

There was another child found, this one buried with a small local stone, the shape of a tongue, placed in its mouth. "You are of this place, and you are this place," it seems to tell us; you are its language, and your story it will tell for generations to come.

The tenderness of these burials-- I was so taken to read of them. I wanted desperately to be the one who found them there-- could you imagine?

That is where I rest now; this intrigue, this love that has blossomed in me for our "first parents". This is the beginning point I was seeking, before jumping into an herbal study, before digging more deeply into the lore of my Celtic ancestors... There is something so common about these people. We are all from this, no? "We are who we were," writes Alistair, again and again. And I beg the small favor of a local stone in my mouth, even before death, saying "I belong."


Barry said...

As always, thank you for this lovely post, mapa p.

You might be interested in this post on a related topic from last March:

Best wishes on the path!

mama p said...

Great story about the deer. I love when those things happen!

I actually accompanied a friend on a hunting trip once. We entered the forest before sunrise, and sat next to a tree for hours and hours, waiting. There was no deer for us to eat that day. But what haunted me most was that empty sensation of knowing we would not meet the deer that day, despite our care and quiet, *and* hearing their haunting calls to each other in the mist of the early morning. It made me quite aware of an aspect of my humanity that so rarely gets any play in this life I have of modern conveniences...

Raymond said...

Mama P.,

I am becoming completely dejected about traditional (if there is such a thing) American Zen Buddhism. I would use the term bad faith to describe how I feel parading around with robes, bells, rules, chants, etc. I feel the decoration is abundant but the essence is absent. I ask myself whether it is my own egotistical desires that has a problem with all of the cultural trappings that accompany the beautifully simple practice of sitting silently for a time and forming a community to share relevant life issues with other thoughtful people. Ah, I don't know!

You have a nice evening.


mama p said...

I don't know either, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

I really felt the same way about the cultural trappings until I did Okesa practice, sewing my robe. Something happened there that I can't describe; its potency can't really be related in words. So there are experiences that these "prescriptions" offer that, without a certain level of attention maybe, they just become "trappings". Some people get it, like some of the senior teachers in my lineage that I love being around-- there's a certain humility they impart in these practices, and that's where another value lies. But some don't get it, and it's heartbreaking, and sometimes painful, to have to put up with. (Or just annoying.) That's my experience of it, anyway.

I don't know if there is a "true" American Zen yet. That may take hundreds of years, for something like "our own" version of Okesa practice to emerge, for example. For me it's a hard wait-- I'm not in this because I'm curious about what it's like to be Japanese! But what IS that American Zen? I'm looking for the roots.