Sunday, December 09, 2007


In the middle of the circle, what my fellow-buddhists would call a shrine: an antlered skull, a candle, and stones arranged in a pattern: four little bear statuettes circled the pattern, one at each point of the compass. Sage burning.

We passed the talking stick, and talked about death, and grandfathers, and being out of work, and being deserted. When each person finished and handed the stick to the next, everyone would say "ah-oo," together -- or some sound like that -- a sound curiously like one of the pronunciations of "om" that I've heard, way down in the throat, the back-vowels coming straight up from the diaphragm.

And then the drums. I probably would not have come, but for the drums. I've never much sought the company of men; in fact, I've avoided it most of my life. But it seemed maybe time to change that. Having lunch with Rob, who invited me to the circle, was part of that.

But a bigger hurdle than the company of men was my distrust of White people doing Indian things. It has a couple components. One is much the same thing as my distrust of people in my sangha who seem too fond of Tibetan stuff, who take Tibetan names and swoon over anyone in a robe. "Spiritual tourists" is the unkind (and often unfair) name I attempt to refrain from applying to them. We have our own sacred traditions, lore, and iconography: why go sniffing after someone else's? -- Well, in my case, because I can't quite accept the bloody, vengeful, and jealous God of my fathers. I take the Tibetan paraphernalia because it comes with taking Michael's teaching and with the community of KCC. Some people, I suspect, take the community and the teaching because it comes with the Tibetan paraphernalia.

But in the Indian case, there's a the further complication of the conquest and occupation, which is not (the way I reckon time) very far in the past. After having practiced haphazard genocide against these people for hundreds of years, and having appropriated their land, going on now to appropriate their sacred rites, as well, seems like the crowning effrontery, the ne plus ultra of imperialism.

Not that I was very sure of whose rites we were appropriating. The leader of the circle, Patrick has some Mingo blood. I had a notion that the drums and sage and talking stick were Plains Indian things -- though most people drum, one way or another. Patrick referred to Black Elk as an authority. I suppose that modern Americans, in any case, must scrape up rites wherever they can find them, whatever their ancestry. When I traveled in rural Greece, people wanted to whether I was from New York, Chicago, or California; I eventually tired of trying to convince them that there were other places in America, and settled for being from California. In more or less the same way, I suppose, native North Americans end up settling for being Sioux or Navajo.

But I digress. The drums. I love drums; always have. I have a small, sweet-toned conga that I play occasionally. But I've almost never drummed in company, though it's always been an attractive idea to me. I've been too shy, or too careful of my dignity.

The drumming began almost casually, little disconnected thumps and rolls, like an orchestra tuning up. Gradually it coalesced into a magnificent music, quite unlike anything I've ever heard. People came in and out of focus, took up different drums and sticks and clangy and chirpy things. Patrick owns a drum-shop, and the wealth of drums to choose from was intoxicating, though I was too timid, that first night, to try any but my own.

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