American media is full of warnings that everything might fall apart, and we need to change our expectations. A person of my age was raised in a time when such predictions were unheard and unthought, but I/we must now grapple with a future that could see collapse. What happens when a way of life collapses? Two brilliant men have told us in landmark books: Black Elk Speaks, is the autobiography of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota visionary and healer, as told to the poet John G. Neihardt; Born in Tibet is an autobiography by Chögyam Trungpa, a holy man from Tibet.
Black Elk was born in 1863 when the Lakota nation ranged across the central plains, centered on ancestral lands around the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. His life well into adulthood was spent hunting buffalo, living in teepees, performing religious ceremonies, finding the Divine in Nature, caring for family and friends.
At the age of nine, he had an expansive vision, the first of several recounted in the book. His spiritual gift caused him confusion and isolation from others, but as he became an adult, his gift became known, and he was revered and turned to for healing and advice.
The photo on the cover of the book shows a strikingly beautiful young man with a carefully crafted necklace made out of animal teeth, a string of beads hanging from his fur hat, long black hair falling below his shoulders, and white earrings. In a photo of him as an old man, he is carrying a cane and dressed in ill-fitting western clothing. This old man is gratified at the opportunity to share his story with Neihardt and thus with the rest of us.
“My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are the children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.
When Black Elk was a beautiful young man, the incursion of what the Lakota called the Wasichus (White people) had already begun with the laying of the “iron road,” the Union Pacific Railroad, cutting the great bison herds in two but not yet causing deprivation to the Lakota, who depended on bison for meat, hides, housing, warmth, and spiritual inspiration.
Little by little, the annoying but harmless incursion became an invasion and finally a murderous domination of everything Black Elk held dear. To see this history through Black Elk’s eyes is mesmerizing. He was, of course, illiterate, but has a storehouse of wisdom and knowledge that would be a match for a classically trained academic. He is schooled by experience in history, biology, botany, medicine, psychology, and the means (now lost to us) of living on the land.
The biggest revelation was how keenly aware he was of the impending demise of his culture, his religion, his way of life, and his future. The Wasichus (White people) at first trickled in and the Lakota went about their business, but as the “yellow metal” (which didn’t interest the Lakota at all) under the Black Hills incited the worst instincts of discrimination and greed, the trickle became a torrent, treaties were signed and promises made, all of which were broken without shame or regret. Black Elk is enraged at several points, grief-stricken and lost, but he retains perspective. His remembrance of a man they called Black Robe, a Catholic priest who helped care for the Lakota, suggests curiosity trumping fury regarding Washichus, an ability to see them as individuals that was not shared by the Washichus themselves, who viewed all Native Americans as one.
Black Elk rushed to Wounded Knee as soon as news of the ongoing massacre reached him. He saw a Lakota baby lying alive but alone on the ground. He couldn’t stop for it but wrapped it in a blanket, and came back for it later. Pair his experience with the classic, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown.
Black Elk is nearby when Crazy Horse is bayoneted in cold blood by a Wasichu soldier and relates the words of people who were in the room where it happened. He also knew Red Cloud, and fled the violence by going to Canada to spend time with Sitting Bull.
After the Lakota were stripped of their land, their horses, their culture, their future, and deported down river, Black Elk performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West extravaganzas, when he saw his first big cities, took a transatlantic ocean liner, and met Queen Victoria. After seeing all that, he wasn’t impressed and couldn’t wait to get back home.
He lived to be 87, and at the end of the book, he reflected:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch [at Wounded Knee] as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth—you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
What struck me most about Black Elk was his lack of debilitating bitterness. He maintained his close relationship to the land and to his Lakota brethren, and treated the Wasichu John Neihardt as a brother. His ability to assess and wonder at the world never left him.
Born in Tibet, tells the story of Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan born on the high plateau of eastern Tibet, “bare, treeless country without even bushes, but grass covered, and in the summer months the ground is bright with small flowers and sweet-smelling herbs.” For most of the year, “the land is under snow and it is so cold the ice must be broken to get water.”
From birth, the child was special, and was declared, at the age of one-and-a-half, the reincarnation of the tenth “Trungpa Tulku,” a high-ranking Buddhist monk; that is, he was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku. He was revered, and his childhood was spent under the tutelage of Buddhist sages who taught him well. By the time he was twenty, he had been given stewardship of a large monastic community.
Most of the texts and rituals referenced in the book are unknown to westerners. As a western Buddhist, I’d heard of some terms, but not of most. Any reader will get the point though—his education and his skill are profound and wide-ranging, the result of years of study, sometimes under grueling conditions.
The first part of the book is the sumptuous recounting of the atmosphere in which Trungpa was raised. Tibet was governed and administered by members of the monastic community, so the book is a fascinating peek at a quasi-feudal but well-functioning society. The reader is brought into the artistic life that created the objects, textiles, poetry, texts, incense, even the medicinal practices, that flourished under that system.
Here, in part, is the description of the Karma-geru monastery that Trungpa visited:
Inside the great hall the walls were painted with wonderful scenes from the life of the Lord Buddha… Between the entrances to the shrine sanctuaries there were shelves along the walls on which gold and silver lamps burned perpetually. The lion throne placed in the centre of the hall was made of sandal-wood brought from a holy place in India; its back was of dark sandal-wood painted with a gold design and with a piece of gold brocade in the centre hung round with a white scarf. The throne was carved with lion designs and the brocade on its cushions had been given by the [14th century] Emperor Tohan Timur when the third Karmapa was invited to China. At the end of the hall, behind the throne, three entrances led into a tremendously lofty chamber, divided in three to hold the images of the past, present, and future Buddhas; these were so gigantic that the measurement across the eyes was five feet. [One Buddha was] made of moulded brass heavily gilt; all the limbs and various parts of the body had been cast separately and put together, but the head was cast in one piece with a large diamond in the centre of the forehead.”
One after another, he describes the art work and the enormous libraries in the monasteries, holding scrolls and texts that were calligraphed on special handmade paper, collected over many centuries and studied closely by thousands of monks.
It is important that the reader appreciate the storehouse of knowledge and beauty that resided in these monasteries in order to comprehend their desecration when the Chinese invaded. In the name of anti-elite Communism they fed the beautifully decorated scrolls on handmade Tibetan paper to their horses, removed the embalmed body of the tenth Trungpa Tulku (this book was written by the eleventh) from its coffin and threw it on the floor. The gold and silver were melted down and sent to China, the books in the libraries burned. There was nothing, nothing, left. Or, to put it differently, the only thing left was the encyclopedic skill and learning in the minds of the monastics.
Trungpa didn’t want to leave behind the hundreds of people dependent on the monastery he headed and waited until the last minute to escape to India. By then, the Chinese invasion had already encompassed most of the country. The last part of the book is the tale of his harrowing journey over the peaks of the Himalayas into India. I learned, for example, how to handle leather so that it can become dinner.
Trungpa was responsible for a group of refugees of fluctuating size, from ten to 300, making their way through the hinterlands of Tibet, often at night so as to evade the Chinese soldiers, who would kill or imprison them. He refused to allow killing of any kind, including of animals that could provide nourishment for the starving refugees, provided support for even the weakest members of the group, and went up and down snow-bound, precipitous peaks and over raging rivers one after another, until they reached India. He was guided by Tibetan prophecy, an iron will, profound compassion, and almost no knowledge of the territory he must lead them through. They gained sporadic information about the activities of the Chinese soldiers from villagers, but in the end they had to avoid even villagers because the Chinese soldiers were requiring loyalty oaths to the Communist government, and there could have been spies among them.
The Chinese invasion began as an annoying trickle that did not disrupt their way of life. The Tibetans described by Trungpa shrugged off the bullying as just another example of Chinese egotism. The history of Tibet’s relationship with China, sometimes warm, sometimes deadly, was known to Tibetans—this was viewed as just another phase. The Chinese began with the carrot—building roads, railroads, schools, etc. When that did not charm the Tibetans to Communism, they exploded into a suffocating, blanket invasion of the country under the guise of “saving” it. They trumped up accusations of weapons possession against the monks of monasteries where there were no weapons, killed the leaders, conscripted the young to build roads and do other construction work which was then touted as being for the benefit of Tibetans. Those Tibetans who were useless to them were transported to concentration camps where they died. Information about the developing situation was conveyed to Trungpa’s band of refugees through messengers on foot or horseback. Messengers brought the news through hell, high water, and snow up to their horse’s knees.
The first electric lights Trungpa had ever seen were the headlights of the Chinese Army trucks; his first airplane was a Chinese reconnaissance plane.
The Tibetans established a surprisingly effective resistance, despite their lack of resources. They delayed the invaders by driving cows along the roads used for transporting troops, sabotaged bridges, and guarded mountain passes with ancient muskets. Their knowledge of the daunting topography gave them another sort of advantage.
Trungpa’s tone when discussing the dismantling of everything he has ever held dear is even. He and the other monastic notables concluded that trying to save the country against overwhelming force would only serve to increase the death and destruction. The monastic leaders were being imprisoned and killed, so they each had to decide whether to try to escape to India. They stepped back from their roles as advisors and leaders and told their people to look into their own hearts and minds. They told their monks and the lay community that there would be no monasteries from now on, so the future of their spiritual and temporal lives rested within each one of them.
At the end of the book, Trungpa and his band arrive in India. It is the land where the Buddha practiced and Buddhism was founded, but its ways were utterly foreign. In his epilogue, Trungpa tells of the further disorientation of going to England, Scotland, and America. Outside of his own small circle, Trungpa is no longer a revered holy man; he’s more or less one of the guys.
I took a lesson from these books. Yes, your society can crumble into a nothingness that you heretofore had never imagined. The people you admire can be made slaves—in Tibet the Chinese forced the landlords to wear their servants’ clothes and the servants to wear their landlords’ clothes—your way of life washed away in a flood of oppression too strong to oppose, your families separated, your property confiscated, your future plans nullified. Yes, it can happen.
I feel a trickle in America. For example, I was walking down the main street in Hoboken, New Jersey one day, when I heard a man behind me repeating, “Build the wall. Build the wall,” referring of course to his support of Donald Trump. When I didn’t respond, he escalated, “I’m following you. I’m right behind you.” At a red light, I turned around to face the troll, a young, blond man, “Are you talking to me?” He scrambled to deny it, but he was threatening me. He was. This was a trickle that could turn into a flood overnight, and in my own town.
The threat from climate change swells every year, with most people shrugging it off over a beer.
The lesson I took from these two stories is that when efforts to stem the swelling tide of destruction fail, it is necessary to look within. Even after a civilization is destroyed, the people survive in a different form., though they may be “bent with heavy snow” as Black Elk put it.
In Trungpa’s case, he was undone as a person, though not as a teacher.
In a village in India, after months of starvation and superhuman struggle, he tasted beer for the first time. Monastics do not drink alcohol so they at first refused, but there was no water in the village and they had to drink beer. This was Trungpa’s introduction to alcohol, the poison that killed him before he turned 50. Despite this and other failings, he was and is beloved by his students, among them Pema Chödrön and my late husband. Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, founded by Trungpa, is still thriving, and the Shambhala organization, which he established, still publishes and teaches, though not without its share of disruptions. I live near Karma Chöling in Vermont, one of the monasteries founded by Trungpa.
Black Elk was transplanted with the rest of his people to a reservation far from his beloved homeland, but returned to live in an undistinguished “square house” (an unpropitious form from the Lakota point of view) that still stands near Manderson, South Dakota. It has become a place of pilgrimage, hosted by Black Elk’s granddaughter. And there is this book.
These are cautionary tales in that they suggest that we should “awake, awake, take heed,” as the Buddhist evening mantra goes, and confront the destruction before it swells to flood stage. Failing that, these stories are also an affirmation that all is never lost. There is gold to be woven from the dross of persecution; we’ve seen it over and over again. Look inward to find it.