A Protection: The Sacred Enemy

Outrage, fear, and acrimony are in the air these days. We do have much to be concerned about, though I won’t make a list. These emotions, pent-up or straight-up, are an invisible, toxic soup, wafting like the visible wildfire smoke over the Pacific NW these days, stinging my eyes, wearying my thought processes. And isn’t that the same with the pervasive emotions of our time? Stinging, wearying, poisoning.

Then today, I remembered a protection in a two-word packet. It comes from a poet and philosopher, a champion of the wilderness, native of the Northwest, and a Zen Buddhist—Gary Snyder. I began reading him intensively a few years back on my long retreat, and felt deep gratitude for his being on the planet. I’ve been meaning to go on a little pilgrimage to the Sierras where he lives, to thank him. But by the time people are traveling around again, who knows, plus he’s 90 now.

Here it is: Sacred enemy. Those words jumped out to me from the page, in an interview with Snyder found in the book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi, Conversations With Spiritual Social Activists by Catherine Ingram. It was the briefest of mentions and I had to know more. Later I found another brief mention in his set of essays, The Practice of the Wild.

I wonder if I can sum it up. All types of beings have sacred enemies, and if you’re a non-human, there is a natural acceptance of this relationship. Some humans and cultures also understand this, even the interdependence of this relationship. The idea is that once we incorporate this, even though we continue to take our stands—as we must—the rage, fear, and acrimony drop away. “Sacred” is essential here because the whole of life with its cycles is sacred, and that means that not one iota can be rejected.

In the animal world, this is easy to see. Predators and prey—both necessary to cycles of life. Traditional sacred enemy relationships, like hawks and rabbits, are known to each other over countless millennia. Rabbits don’t resent hawks, haven’t developed extra layers of bitterness or fury. And they also don’t stop checking the air space, nor stop fleeing at the right time. No one gloats when their side wins.

What of the human sphere, where, with adversarial situations, we have a tendency to ladle on layers of complicated emotions? Snyder suggests viewing these relationships in the same way as the animal kingdom. If we view the powerful as a sacred enemy, then at the same time that we’re taking politicians to court, or organizing protest marches, or even forming debate strategies while reading the newspaper, we can take the stance that we’re in a timeless dance. Those who oppress can then more easily be viewed with compassion, that they’re caught up in some thoughtless, automatic trap bereft of their deeper humanity. And in this new perspective, our own counter-actions might be more effective, now no longer blinded by rage, cut down by fear, nor perverted by acrimony.

This perspective is one way we may bring the principles of Buddhism together with political and social activism, incorporating depth of forgiveness, compassion, and big mind to the struggles with our political adversaries – without giving up the fight. It’s by seeing the universal play at work, and we take our place in that play.

Seen from a depth psychology viewpoint, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her tome, Women Who Run With the Wolves, writes about the innate predator found within the psyche…and without. She tells us, the foe is ancient and contemporary, yet it’s not one bit about submitting.

And so, I wonder, why should we be surprised, incensed, and bitter? What if, instead, we employ “sacred enemy”? And shed the toxicity that pollutes our own heart and mind, while retaining the deeply humane and beneficial work of setting things right.

~ ~ ~

Note: Somewhere in the murky past I came across other writing of Snyder’s where he actually explains the sacred enemy idea as it relates to the human and political realm, but I cannot now find it. If you know where it lies, what it says, please let me know.

In Pinkola Estes’ book, the points above are found in Chapter 2, “Stalking the Intruder, The Beginning Initiation.”


Photo: Daniel Mott, Stockholm, Sweden. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Champion of Humankind

Thirty years ago on a June day my friend Susan invited me to tea and to meet her husband, Rick. She had been telling me bits and pieces about the Tibetan Buddhism that they practiced, but said that Rick would be the one to convey it to me more completely. I carved out time on my birthday, as a gift to myself, and anticipated the day with great eagerness.

They lived high up in a small apartment at the local Episcopal church, coincidentally in the Seattle neighborhood where I’d grown up. Rick worked as caretaker of the church. He’d been a semi-pro tennis player, tall and fit. He had been working on an avante-garde film with his friend, Torbin, a famous Danish Buddhist and tennis star.

Susan and Rick, warm and welcoming, gave me tea and invited me to sit on their floor with them, the only seating in their living room. Rick spoke long about Buddhism, then lent me three books. I admired their altar with so many objects that I did not yet comprehend, including photos of their teachers. I was spellbound. When I finally left with a full heart, clutching the books, I had a sense that I’d found the spiritual home i’d been searching for – for years, or perhaps my whole life.

In the following months I returned to discuss the books, or further thoughts. They invited me to attend a weekend retreat with their teacher, who became my teacher. I was entering a world at once familiar and exotic. The teacher had spoken about duality and non-duality. I had no idea what this meant, along with so many other concepts. I turned to Rick’s depth of philosophy and understanding for answers.

Susan, with her southern accent, was very down-to-earth, someone I related to easily, an instant sister. And in fact, this quality of hers convinced me that Tibetan Buddhism would not be so esoteric that I couldn’t reach for it. But it took Rick’s facile and patient explanations to lead me, and his openness to one’s own inner process to give me confidence. Their teacher was Tibetan, rarely visiting Seattle, and anyway, remote, traveling the world to his many hundreds of students. It was left to someone like Rick to introduce beginners like me to this form of Buddhism.

In those early days I joined their group which met weekly in their small apartment where we chanted and sang a collection of Tibetan prayers. I dove straight in and loved it from the start. Through the years we attended retreats together, practices, and got together for discussions. Then, my life took adventurous turns, going to Asia, meeting a Tibetan teacher whom I brought back to Seattle, too much to tell. By that time, Rick and Sue’s involvement with their sangha had cooled, and they went into a long period of reflection, while my life was taken up more than ever with my teacher and his Buddhist teachings.

But Rick’s inordinate calling to philosophy, to inquiry of the mind, and to community, wasn’t going to stop there. I saw this when, after many years, I reconnected with them both. I learned about their long involvement with dialogue groups, with contemporary western philosophers sometimes mixing with Buddhism, and a particular avenue of communication. It was intriguing, but what I was most caught by was the continuation of this beautiful aspiration of both Rick and Sue to help others to see, to find their way—not only others, but themselves, and within their relationship, each other. …And this was fueled by a deep confidence in the inner process, and a great, great humanity.

Rick New’s life ended yesterday, July 9, 2019, and humankind has lost one of its champions.

Prayer for the Earth

Eight Tibetan monks have come to the Pacific Northwest to consecrate the new temple on south Whidbey Island, home of the Buddhist sangha, Pema Kilaya. Its name: Dharma Land of the Great Practitioner; in Tibetan, Phagtsok Gedun Choling. (See last blog entry for photos.)

Consecration of a Tibetan temple is a complex undertaking, requiring years of ritual experience by the practitioners. These men each began their monastic life as children of the Himalayas, joining temples there, and after decades, made their way to Buddhist centers in the very Buddhist country of Taiwan. This is where they met Kilung Rinpoche…which led to an invitation to help him ritually energize the new Whidbey temple.

Expanding the sphere of blessings. These monks are also experienced in the ritual of creating sand mandalas. So, following the consecration of the temple, three locations in the Pacific Northwest will be treated to this sacred practice. The public is invited to these free events, also featuring public talks by Kilung Rinpoche.

Seattle at the University of Washington’s Intellectual House
June 6 – 7

Whidbey Island at the new temple in Clinton during their Open House
June 9 – 10

Bellingham at the Firehouse Arts & Events Center
June 13 – 14

Full Details at Exhibit Website

The sand mandala, sacred art of Tibet, is a form of meditation in action, benefiting the artist, the observer, and broader world. A precise template is first laid down, based on sacred geometry; the monks then tap out of special instruments minute amounts of colored sand, covering the entire “canvas”; a ritual is done to consecrate the image, powering the intention of bringing good to the world; at the end the mandala is ritually “dissolved,” the sand collected up and poured into a large waterway — to distribute the blessings throughout the world. From creation through dissolution, the sand mandala is a beautiful dance illustrating the impermanence of all things.

We hope you will join us.