A Sacred Mountain

 

This evening as dusk was settling and the remnants of a glorious burgundy sunset lingered in the clouds, I set off up the mountain with Jack.  He hadn’t done any walking today, and though he still favoured his back left foot, I thought it would be good for him to get some exercise.  As we made our way up the path by the weir, suddenly Jack was off like a flash.  In seconds he was 200 metres ahead in the valley.  There they were, standing majestically and unconcerned, two eland, the sacred animal of the Bushmen.  They didn’t seem to pay much attention to Jack and his barking, and thankfully he soon made his way back to me.  In the silence as the darkness settled and the subtle illumination of a clear moon cast a silver blessing over the land, we watched the eland gather into a group of five and slowly make their way up out of the valley to disappear into the mountain.

Thanissara and I have been living on this mountain for seven years.  Its Zulu name is Mvuleni – Place of Rain.  The old folk say this has always been a place where the local people come to pray for rain.  According to the provincial Museum, one of the Bushmen paintings on this mountain depicts a shaman’s battle with a rain beast. Here on the lower slopes we are over a mile above sea level situated in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal.  These mountains are powerful.  In the summer season there are thunderstorms almost every afternoon. Roaring rumbling booms of thunder and spectacular purple-tinted lightning flashes evoke the powerful dragon like presence that these mountains are named after.  Interestingly, in Buddhist cosmology the ‘dragon’ is a celestial creature that has power over fire, thunder and rain.  There is a fascinating concord between these names, the Eastern world view, the drama the Bushmen art depicts, and the actual experience of being in these mountains during a storm.

A Place of Rain is a significant spot in the African environment. Without water life is very difficult to sustain.  When we first arrived 7 years ago this province had been having a drought, and many springs and reservoirs were dry. The spring on this mountain, however, was still flowing.  This whole area has been a National Park for a long time, and just last year it was designated a World Heritage Site for its outstanding beauty and its wealth of rock art.  This vital Drakensberg catchment area also provides precious water for a significant portion of  South Africa.

As the winter approaches, however, and the rains subside, the nights become cool and crisp, often below freezing. The days are sunny and clear.  Because there is no rain for several months the green grasses turn subtle shades of yellow, gold, red, purple and brown, leaving a vast pastel panoply in their place.  But this is also the fire season and the season of the great winds.  Though the dry grasses are exquisitely beautiful, they are vulnerable and dangerous.

A careless match can set countless square miles of grasslands on fire.  By law, every property must be surrounded by firebreaks, for its own protection and for the safety of those around it.  A year and a half ago a hurricane force wind propelled a river of fire through our region, burning over 20 square miles, destroying several homes in the area, ripping off dozens of roofs, and even killing a few people in the process. We saw the fire jump the road, race up the mountain, and soon we witnessed a long low and strangely beautiful wave of fire racing toward us.  When it was about a mile away, we knew we had only minutes to evacuate.

Until that moment, five of us had been here on an intensive three month silent meditation retreat, spending our days and nights in efforts to cultivate a steadiness of mind, consciously acknowledging the various swirling currents of desire and aversion, restlessness and worry, sluggishness and paralyzing doubts.  We had marveled at the mysterious alchemy of awareness that transforms these so called hindrances into peacefulness and contentment, patience and clarity, compassion and a quiet confidence.

But now, in a matter of minutes, amidst the relentless screeching howl of the wind, we had to flee our sanctuary and leave everything behind.  We put Jack in the car and evacuated in our vehicles a few miles down the road.  An hour later we drove back up the mountain road, dodging fallen burning trees, not knowing what we would find.  Hundreds of burning logs still flamed on our property.  Amazingly the main buildings were still intact.  The fire had swept right up to and around them, jumping a 200 metre firebreak.  Three metres from the thatch roof of our meditation room, a log still blazed, ignited by the firestorm.  Somehow the buildings were saved.  When the local expert on fire breaks came to inspect our land after the fire, he looked and said, “Why are these buildings still standing?  A miracle has happened here.”

When we became guardians of this piece of property, we named it Dharmagiri.  Dharmagiri is a Sanskrit word.  Giri means mountain and Dharma signifies the totality of the cosmos, including mind and matter, spirit and form.  It encompasses the natural order of things and is also used to denote the formal teachings that lead onwards to awakening.  Dharmagiri could also be translated as Sacred Mountain.  I think at first we were drawn to this name because of the power of the mountain, its strength and apparent benevolence, and because of our intention to dedicate our time here in devotion to the quest of enlightenment.

I’ve often wondered what makes a mountain sacred.  Is it the miracles that seem to happen there, the special experiences, the blessings that its presence bestows on all who come into her aura?  Many times I’ve noticed that in the process of walking up the mountain, I find myself present, here in this moment. Naturally I come into contact with my body, following each step in between the boulders, alert to the terrain, aware of my breath and weight as I negotiate with the formidable force of gravity.  As I look down and see the tiny boxes we inhabit, I realize we often get entangled in the myriad complications of this and that, good and bad, should and shouldn’t, and lose perspective on our essential spaciousness of spirit. Somehow in the process of simply climbing up the mountain, I get realigned, connected to the reality of the moment, rather than lost in judgments about how it is or should be. The thoughts that tripped me up below still appear, but somehow they are seen for what they are.  When we’re in touch with the true nature of a moment, we see the Dharma and experience the essential beauty of life.

Perhaps a place is sacred when it helps us to trust that it’s OK and important to be here, to be fully here so that we can discover our inherent peacefulness and sanity.  They say these mountains are 220 million years old.  That’s a long time.  And yet the thought of tomorrow can sometimes send us into a spin.  As I open my eyes and sense how fleeting our human presence is here, reflecting on the immensity and timelessness of this mountain, I find a moment of humility.  What delusion to really imagine I own this body, this land, these things.

From a Buddhist perspective the sense of ownership is a false assumption that gives rise to endless suffering. We think we can find security in possessing or identifying with something, and yet whatever we grasp slips through our fingers.  Not realizing the changing nature of things, we continually feel let down.  Our teacher used to tell us that our suffering was like a person upset with a chicken, demanding to know why it wasn’t a duck.  Believing our judgments, expectations and demands about how things should be, we obstruct ourselves from accessing the true sacredness and blessedness of what is actually being offered in any given moment.

On a sacred mountain we didn’t expect to learn about firebreaks or invasive plants that were carelessly planted by settlers earlier this century leading to erosion of the land and depletion of the water resources.  We didn’t imagine we would be spending so much time taking out gum and pine trees and rejoicing to see the indigenous shrubs and grasses return.  We didn’t expect to meet a Zulu woman named Angel who was desperately seeking a refuge and a home, fleeing from political violence, trying to find education for her sons.  I certainly didn’t expect on our sacred mountain to face someone trying to kill another, or imagine I would be sitting with a group of young men discussing violence and where it leads.  I didn’t expect to see a young person we’d tutored get sick and find out he’s HIV positive, leading us into the monumental tragedy of AIDS. I never would have imagined that this magic mountain would one day bring down its steep slopes a tiny puppy.  Separated from an illegal hunting party, Jack found his way to us with a loving, loyal, and fearless heart that has melted our deepest moments of despair.  All these circumstances could be seen as unwanted problems.  In truly receiving what is being offered, however, we can respond with an undivided heart, allowing manifold blessings to emerge in most unexpected ways.

Buddhism teaches that a great source of joy is giving.  Since it is said that the cause of suffering emerges from trying to keep and possess what is not really ours, we discover joy and a sense of communion with all things when we share.  As I look to the future of this country I see that we need to abandon our preoccupation with selfish expectations, and rather cultivate a culture of sharing. After all, as Africa frequently reminds us, none of us are here for very long.

Therefore, the wind does thus when we die, the wind makes dust, because it intends to

blow, taking away our footprints with which we had walked about while we still had nothing the matter; and our footprints, which the wind intends to blow away, would otherwise still show.  For it would seem as if we still lived.  Therefore, the wind intends to blow, taking away our footprints.

Dia!kwain (from the Bushman Xam tribe that is now extinct)

Article from ‘Resurgance’  by Kittisaro