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Words of Power #6: The White Tree
“And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was all over the world in that hour, nor was there anything other sound other than the chanting of Yvanna. Under her songs the saplings grew and become fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus, there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all the things that Yvanna made, they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Eldar Days are woven…In seven hours the glory of each tree waxed to its full and waned again to naught; and each awoke once more to life an hour before the other ceased to shine. Thus in Valinor twice every day there came a gentle hour of softer light when both trees were faint and their gold and silver beams were mingled…”(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion)
Recently, I visited Seoul to brief some Korean business leaders on a range of global security threats and their potential impact on Korean life and economy. My gracious host took me to lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the top floor of a tall office building. The restaurant’s expansive view highlighted the river that flows through the city. My host pointed to one of the bridges that crosses the river, and reminisced about fleeing over it, as a little boy--before it was blown up, at the outbreak of the Korean War.
We spoke of hope for peace on the Korean peninsula, and on that day the news was good: South Korea had agreed to trade rice and energy for North Korean minerals. I learned that the Koreans do not think that a war is inevitable or that Kim Jong will attack militarily unless he has no other options. I expressed concern that there would be a fatal miscalculation or provocation from either Pyongyang or Washington, D.C. I also expressed concern about the potential for black market WMD sales for cash. We agreed that the peace process could have been much farther along by now if the progress that Clinton-Gore had made had not been scuttled by Bush-Cheney, despite Colin Powell's sworn (and probably well-meaning) testimony to the contrary.
In the course of our dialogue, I mentioned my practice of Buddha Dharma.
My host suggested I go to Chogyesa Temple, which he had also known as a boy, and he dispatched his own driver to take me there after my afternoon sessions.
I walked up the steps to the main building, which opened on all four sides, and circumambulated it. As I walked, I delighted in the vivid tapestries that hung on every panel of the outer walls. I paused for a few extra moments at two in particular: one of Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, besieged by Mara’s Army, and the other of Bodhidharma walking on waters of a turbulent sea.
There was an atmosphere of intense devotion inside the Main Hall. Many people, mostly women and the elderly, were performing prostrations and uttering prayers. Pigeons flew in and out of the rafters. Candles burned low. Incense wafted on the summer breeze.
Even now as I type these words my heart fills with intense feeling.
Unexpectedly, unpretentiously, Chogyesa turned out to be a very powerful place.
Later, researching the history of the temple, I learned that it was named after the mountain on which Hui-Neng (638-713) had lived. Of course, coincidentally, Hui-Neng’s life and teachings have been a deep and abiding influence on my spiritual life. Hui-Neng was a poor, illiterate wood-gatherer in southern China, but he arrived at liberation by simply hearing the Diamond Sutra read aloud. The Fifth Patriarch recognized Hui-Neng as a great being, and appointed him as his successor, i.e., the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism. His remarkable life and profound teachings are chronicled in The Sutra of Hui-Neng.
Another poignant factoid my inquiry revealed was that although the temple was established in 1910, the Main Hall was built in 1937. Yes, it was constructed during the Japanese occupation, and on the eve of WWII. It stands there now seemingly so fragile, and so vulnerable, open on all sides--yet it remains unbroken, undefeated, and vibrant, despite two savage hot wars and one long bitter cold war…
There is a 500-year-old White Pine that dominates the courtyard. I was stunned by the magnetism and the mute eloquence of this tree. I circumambulated it, and stroked its smooth trunk with my hands, and prayed for it and to it.
Just as I draw on the Buddha Dharma in my life and work, I draw on the way of the Shaman. Indeed, although different in expression and emphasis, these two great traditions flow from the same primordial sources and resonate in oneness at their depths. And, from Central Asia to the Amazon, the world’s Shamanic tradition exhorts us to listen and learn from the trees. Well, in my life many trees have spoken to me—not in words, but through feelings and portents. And, in the course of these writings, I will share several of these episodes with you. But for now just focus on this 500-year-old tree. How much it has seen? How much it has endured? How much joy and sorrow it has witnessed? Imagine. Five centuries of stillness? Except for being singed in fire, and frozen in winter. Five centuries of stillness. Except for shivering in the summer breeze and in the aftershock of exploding ordinance. Five centuries of root, trunk, limb, branch. Five centuries of sages, children, soldiers and lovers kissing, breathing, weeping, pissing, sleeping, hoping, cursing…Five centuries…
As I lingered there, communing with that extraordinary tree, I realized I had stumbled upon an emanation of the White Tree itself. Yes, that powerful totem which the great British storyteller, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about in The Lord of the Rings, and in The Silmarillion upon which the trilogy rests. The gift of promise that Isildur of the Numenoreans had purchased with great personal sacrifice, and brought back from the Higher World to light the way for all the races of Middle Earth. It stood for long ages in the courtyard at Minas Tirith.
Overshadowed by the two agonizing World Wars, which dominated the 20th Century, Tolkien salvaged the White Tree from the dark, salty seas of the Collective Unconscious. Overshadowed by the agonizing potential for a third World War at the dawn of the 21st Century, Peter Jackson brought The Lord of The Rings to the cinema. Together, in an impersonal collaboration spanning generations and epochs, Tolkien and Jackson restored the great mythic imagery for which humanity has thirsted throughout the grim, dim-witted but necessary turmoil of the Industrial Age, languishing as it still does in spiritually impoverished and environmentally ravaged societies.
I departed Seoul knowing that there was hope for the planet, and much toil and travail to come for all who live in tune with that hope. And yes, that hope is as fragile and vulnerable as a naked 500-year-old White Pine standing unguarded, and only quietly and partially acknowledged, in the open courtyard of a Buddhist temple in a bustling neighborhood of Seoul. I knew that for me the challenges of security are forever intertwined with challenges of sustainability and spirit.
There are no coincidences.
Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and www.wordsofpower.net. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc.
You can reach Richard Power via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, go to www.wordsofpower.net.