What Is Divine About Deities?
Rambling down a steep dirt road in a car past a closely gathered grouping of distinct sheer red rock pinnacles, my Navajo friend told me each was a yei, a holy being. Upon my asking which was who, the conversation abruptly ended in a telling silence. My first impulse was to assume that was none of my business, which indeed it wasn’t. My next impulse was to listen intently to that silence. That was as much as could be disclosed, even to a close friend.
But I did know that we were driving in the midst of a sanctified landscape bordered by four sacred mountains, traversing a sacred mountain range, the Chuska, known as a “he” range, looking across the vast Chinle Valley over to the distant “she” mountain, Black Mesa. A magnificent couple dancing through eons amidst an endless expanse, through “he-rains” and “she-rains”, and vast open blue blankets of deep space. The entire environment breathing, and speaking in winds and seamless time. I could feel something of this blowing like hot sand through the pores my thick skin.
In the Tibetan context. . .
the world is likewise composed of concordant sacred mountains, lakes, ranges, plains, and rivers, the anatomy of a living cosmos. And the five elements continually orchestrate all the activities and dramas taking place amidst that interwoven natural world. Likewise, these forces are intimately interwoven with the inner lives and spiritual complexions of all beings living in their midst, seen and unseen. Beings are participants in the warp and the woof of that very pattern, not living “in” it but expressions of it. And so ceremony, prayer, supplication, ritual is a continual conversation with those intimate relatives. Yet like Navajo rugs, each pattern and weave is unique. *
Once the translator of Tibetan Buddhist works and writer Keith Dowman drove across the American west. A noted chronicler of sacred Tibetan landscapes and pilgrimage sites, he observed to me later that he had not detected any sacred sites or powerful places along his journey. And that America seemed to him like a vast spiritually uninhabited vacuity. I commented to him that of course, the Native American sacred sites were not pinpointed on tourist road maps, and not visible to many if any non-natives, and for good reason considering the history of European desecration of the entire American continent. Not even a trained and experienced eye such as Dowman’s. so accustomed to a vibrant Tibetan spiritual landscape and plethoras of sacred shrines exuding vivid power. could necessarily detect the potent distinctions of the American west. One must have the gift of sight bestowed by the place itself.
It is a custom among painters of Navajo yei images and sand mandalas made for sale to change or exclude one vital detail of the iconography. The image as such remains impotent and devoid of the sacredness it purportedly embodies. And thus it can be sold without consequence. In like manner, to the eye that does not have the particular appropriate faculty of perception, endowed by the place itself and the native spiritual curators who are its tongue, the sacred landscape is invisible, or appears as a tangled world of solid frozen rock.
In the empowerment rites of Tibetan Buddhism, at some point one removes a blindfold, and is introduced formally to the deities of the particular mandala being introduced. This after years of preparation. Without that ritual bestowed by one who holds the power and mastery of that deity, one is blind to that spiritual universe, and any attempt at connecting to it is futile, or at worst, contrived.
For Australian aboriginals, one cannot even “see” such sacred landscape without knowing each place’s distinct song, knowing the song lines. And the song itself is only bestowed as a gift by the landscape itself, through vision. The journey through the landscape is one of intimate tunes, and as one travels, intoning the particular song, one “dreams” the landscape into existence.
In the Blessingway chant cycle of the Navajo, my Navajo friend told me, the first major section is dedicated to the building of the hogan, the traditional dwelling which is a microcosm of the universe in its design and function. It is the songs that actually create the hogan, the physical construction being secondary.
In Tibetan ritual dance, cham, the sacred world and its cast of characters is danced into existence, evoked from timeless primordial occurrence into the very moment by precisely prescribed movement, then applied as medicine to the spiritual obstructions of the observers. The movements of the dance are themselves the gifts of the deities they invoke. To be alive is to be innately aware of and interacting with these vital expressions of landscape, spirit, sound, movement and body. Not to be aware and interacting is not to be alive, even if biologically functional. Perhaps like the Tibetan zombie, the rolang. That walking death is the message and manner of materialism, or freezing the world into a working ignorance of all that fundamentally nourishes and sustains a life, a culture, a world, and a cosmos, moment by moment and eon by eon.
Understanding the sacred matrix...
What to Tibetans is called lha (in one form expanded to drala), to Navajos yei, in Sanskrit deva, to Japanese Shinto kami, intoned in English as “deities” or “gods”, and reflected in so many other myriad expressions, is sometimes called a common denominator of so called sacred cultures. It reflects what anthropologists call the primordial matrix. It is the highlights of what Buddhists and Bonpos call tendril, the utter interdependence and vitality of all that appears as well as all that does not appear. But are they synonyms for a common phenomena that seems to have pervaded the world long before the onslaught of materialistic assumptions, and continues sparsely among so-called traditional cultures? Or is it a betrayal in itself to suggest they are all referring to the same phenomena, cheapened by an imposed commonality?
One cannot say at all that it is the same thing or principle for all occurrences of encountering deity. Each has its own integrity and context. And to universalize any of them is usually to co-opt the particular in favor of a foreign notion of the “universal" or the “one”. Such as, for instance, the Christian co-option of Native American deities (making Tunkashila into a male creator god), or on the other end of the scale, the attempt of Brahmanic Hinduism to co-opt all the devas and devis of the Dravidian culture under the umbrella of the Hindu Trinity, and ultimately to the monotheistic ground of Brahman (the “One”). And, of course, to chain the ego (Atman) to that “one”, effectively giving the ego divine sanction.
The Navajo name for themselves is Diné, which is usually translated by non-Navajos as “the people”. But, as my Navajo friend explained, it actually includes all living beings, including humans, yei (deities), animals, plants, and rocks as well. All the so-called animate and inanimate, the seen and the unseen are included and are alive. And each has its distinct expression, each has its song by which one may invoke it.
In the Book of the Navajo, Raymond Friday Locke recounts that a U.S. Army surgeon stationed at Fort Defiance in the 1860’s, in what is now called Arizona, wrote in his journal that after extensive observation, for all intents and purposes, the Navajos had no religion. What he failed to know, through his particular Christian lens of what constituted religion, was that every minute detail of Navajo daily life is saturated with song, ritual, and interplay with the divine presence of all that occurs as life and death, the environment and all beings. Imagine the surprise of the settlers when they realized that! There is, indeed, nothing that is not spiritual. Put another way, living in a sacred way is well camouflaged to those who regard religion as referring to anything abstract, dictated by dogma or absent from everyday life.
Put another way, what is elusive about a deity is only one’s own clouded perception.
The deity is evoked exactly by the directness of clear, open perception, free of pre-conception. That is sacred perception, and what is shared with the deity.
According to Japanese tradition, there are 8 million kami (deities) inhabiting Japan. Once the Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was visiting Japan. As is frequent with such magical persons, he was accompanied by an entourage of the unseen (to us common people) dralas. At one point, having thus traveled to the land of the kami, he expressed some concern. When asked about it, he replied that the drala and the kami were not getting along!
Later during the same trip, Trungpa Rinpoche respectfully approached the Japanese national shrine at Ise, accompanied by the Japanese Kyudo (archery) master and imperial bow maker Shibata Sensei, and formed a close tie with the national deity, Amaterasu-ōmikami. Proper introductions are essential in the realm of deities, particularly in crossing deity cultures. If one respects the integrity of the particular, then the so-called universal takes care of itself, or indeed, is redundant.
On one hand, entry to the sacred realm of living seems to be contingent on the perception of and participation with that radical living interdependence. This occurs through ritual, insight, vision, song, dance, poetic invocation, sacred language, and pure perception. Yet each instance of such occurrence is unique. The very core of what it means to perceive drala, or yei, and the rest, occurs exactly as a a singularity of perception, vision and experience. As Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “When we draw down the power and depth of vastness into a single perception, then we are discovering and invoking magic.” It occurs in the distinct instant of now, meaning the utter presence of awareness in that singular perception. In that moment, presence becomes a presence. “One meets face-to-face the deity of one’s own awareness.” All of time and all of appearance is condensed into that brief yet far-reaching instant of connection. It is like a night sky adorned with innumerable piercingly brilliant distinct stars. Certainly not “if you’ve seen one star, you’ve seen them all.”
It’s amazing that such uncountable occurrences of unique perceptions gather into nebula of spiritual continuity called culture or tradition. And likewise, those cultures themselves are sustained by the perpetual ignition of such distinct perceptions and spiritual experiences, constant renewal.
In the absence of that, cultures become atrophied, and tradition becomes dogma and fortification. Religions become sequestered to brittle sectarian versions of gods that are mutually exclusive even though called “one god.” Spontaneous brilliance is filled in with the concrete of assumptions, and inspiration is relegated to obligations of worship. The world freezes, and its inhabitants rattle about like sharp-edged ice cubes gasping for breath and dying of thirst. How ironic that ice cubes, water itself, could die of thirst merely because they are frozen. And suffocate merely because they are self-sealed from the abundant oxygen surrounding them.
What is “divine” about deities, dralas, devas, yei, and so on?
Perhaps it is partially because each is itself unbound by any of those attempts to capture, own and freeze it. Impervious to attempts to subsume them under any conjectured umbrella of enforced “unity”. The attributes and descriptions of deities themselves convey this intangibility. Navajo yei ride the wind and rainbows, and the wind itself is sacred and pervades all as the most primal creative force. Long before the Japanese suicide bombers of World War II, Kamikazi meant “divine wind”. “Mind” in Buddhist practice, itself a moment-to-moment occurrence that is unfindable, rides the inner winds. Some yei are assisted by or wield lightning— what could be more instantaneous? There are thunder beings in the Navajo universe, such as the Thunder Bird, whose principle attribute as invoked in the verse above is flight.
The primary symbol in Vajrayana Buddhism is the vajra, the “thunderbolt”, indestructible in its instantaneousness and as intangible as the space it expresses. Tibetan lha are vivid and brilliant yet empty of substance. The deity is free to be the pure expression of the moment it is perceived, and is gone the moment the noose of possession and aggression is thrown its way. Perhaps its very elusiveness is its most distinct and magnetizing characteristic, it’s holiness. And in that way, it likewise further frees the uncontrived and open mind that is able to perceive it. Perhaps that is what is called blessing.
Navajo yei are free of having to be Tibetan lha and Tibetan lha are free of having to be Celtic fairies. Kami are not obliged to get along with dralas. The earth is free to be solid without pretense or else mobile as dust astride winds. And the vast sky that they all ride is free from having to be anything at all. Consequently, each unique sacred perception, deity, environment and culture can be everything.
Passing along that narrow road leading down through those magnificent pantheons of living, breathing, dancing red rock, spilling out onto the sweeping plateau, that silence of my Navajo friend was distinct. My friend was in that moment, I felt, greeting the particular yei in the very language shared between them, carried in the hot summer breeze. In that moment of untold silence, perhaps his entire culture came into full bloom. All at once and once again.
Images added by Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo