By Andrew Peers
Sitting down to write at the heavy wooden table in front of the cottage window, a view of the village and beyond gently opens out—a landscape of green fields and stately mature oak trees.
It is autumn and their leaves are turning yellow and orange. This village lies in an area particularly associated with oaks.
Sensing the season and silently tuning in to its rhythm, is broadly what is understood as ‘Celtic’ in Celtic Buddhism. It is the felt connection to the natural world as it continually changes; a way of learning to move with it—even to celebrate it—as the dance of transience in the mandala of nature.
The Celts in their day did not generally live to a ripe old age but this did not make them fatalistic or sombre. Their rich culture and art testify to this. They were warriors familiar with the threat of war and the struggle to survive, and their songs and legends have a brassy, bragging heroic tone of a proud people in love with their own eloquence. For them, life and death were closely interwoven, with many ‘thin places’ between the two.
I am reminded of the time when, still a Trappist monk living in Northern Ireland, I went over to the abbey shop one day and was confronted in the entrance passage by a poster on the wall showing about twenty gargoyle-like faces: “The River Gods of Ireland.” How on earth, I thought to myself then, could a poster like that be hanging in the shop of a Roman Catholic abbey? And who do those faces belong to? Where do these gods live?
The late Chogyam Trungpa, an influential Tibetan Buddhist teacher of meditation and inspiration behind Celtic Buddhism, saw these local energies and gods as the western equivalent of the gods of the native Tibetan religion, called Bon.
In Tibet, the more war-like gods go by the name of dralas. The word drala is connected to the word ‘deity,’ and signifies simultaneously both a natural force operating in the phenomenal world, and an aspect of our own pure awareness. Trungpa was deeply saddened by the loss of the great drala traditions of Europe.
In both traditions, spirituality is portrayed as a field of battle where dangers are common: the poison of arrogance, the trap of doubt, the ambush of hope and the arrow of uncertainty.
Here the enemy is the ego and its projections.
The greatest weapon against it is openness, and real victory is the victory over war and aggression. Celtic tribes were warrior tribes and it is this basic attitude of daring that Celtic Buddhism first and foremost seeks to rekindle with regard to spiritual development in modern life today. It is not a passive or passionless spirituality. Life is still short, so a pro-active warrior-like bravery can serve it best.
Working with spiritual realities of another order introduces the shamanic aspect of Celtic Buddhism. The shamanic figure in the tribes of the Celts was known as the druid. The name druid has been translated ‘knower of the oak’ and it is said that apprenticeship to a druid could take as long as 20 years. The question surfacing in my mind this sunny autumn morning, as I look out at the impressive oaks before me, is: What exactly took so long?
Druidism today has often been stereotyped and pigeon-holed, dismissed as the hobby-like fantasy of eccentrics. But what was passed on orally from teacher to student is a still living spiritual reality, accessible today.
The druid was able to put aside fear and show his or her being to the student in complete openness. Such an act contained within it the possibility of inducing a sudden gap in the student’s usual way of thinking at what might be called a ‘thin place’ of the mind, where the Spirit suddenly interrupts the ego-thought system. The result is knowledge, a sublime knowledge that is true knowing.
It is the experiential knowledge of an invincible light within, catalyzing a radical change of mindset, even of vocabulary.
Zen Buddhist schools even today use riddles and stories as devices to jar monks out of their usual dualistic thinking.
One such riddle is called The Oak tree in the Garden:
A monk asked Master Chao Chou, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming to the West?” Chao Chou replied, “The oak tree in the garden.” The monk later asked the same question again, and Chao Chou replied with the same answer, adding with force, “Look at it!”
Celtic Buddhism sometimes employs this ancient oral tradition to teach the specifically druidic way of looking and seeing, making it possible to look past form to a non-dualistic interpretation of the world. To look in a new way is also to think about the world in a new way, and about our place in it.
But this apparently new way of seeing is in fact an old forgotten knowledge that was core to the Celtic peoples—the second sight held by the druids. To know it personally requires the discipline of practice and the bravery of a warrior committed to the spiritual path. It requires the confrontational intimacy inherent in a correct teacher-student relationship.
Seeing the world from a place beyond the world—beyond transience—all beings seem like dralas. We can sally forth to meet them and work with them as enlightened warriors, or we can choose to remain ignorant, projecting our own shadow onto everything and perpetuating the myth.
By patiently learning silence and looking deeply into the rhythm of nature, life and death need not hold us in the grip of fear.
In these modern mobile times, in which the descendants of the Celts have spread far and wide across the globe, this oak tree wisdom remains accessible and unchanging; its roots reaching down into the soft fertile soil of our collective memory beyond the ego.
The particular mind-stream of Chogyam Trungpa that was Celtic still transmits to us from beyond the grave, and can take us beyond the fear of it.
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Editor: Dana Gornall