Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Nagas and the Elements (Part 1)

Today was a naga day—a day in which those snakelike “unseen beings associated with water and fluid energy” are said to be especially active and receptive to offerings—so I rose with the sun to make the short drive to my local spring to make an offering to the naga who may live there. The springs are busy all day long in the summer, especially on weekends once the local schools are no longer in session, and I’ve come to value whatever privacy I can get on those rare days—usually only a couple of times a month—when the calendar says the naga might accept my offering. So it’s best for me to go very early in the day, even though I’m not normally an early riser.

It was the Buddhist teacher Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin who first hinted there might be a naga at my neighborhood spring. Khenpo was staying at our house on his first visit to our area, and at dinner one night at a Thai restaurant, one of the folks visiting for Khenpo’s teaching mentioned to me that Khenpo “worked with the nagas.” I was immediately fascinated; the ideas of unseen worlds, magical and mysterious beings, psychic phenomena, and occult goings-on have always strongly magnetized me. So I asked Khenpo about the nagas, but I either asked at a bad time or we were hampered by his beginner’s skills in English and my total lack of skill in Tibetan.

But driving Khenpo into town for Sunday’s teaching on that weekend several years ago, I made a spontaneous decision to show him our local spring. Poor Khenpo! I imagine he must have felt as if he were being kidnapped, but luckily the spring isn’t that far off the main road and I calculated that we had just enough time to visit it without being late to the teaching.

We got out of the car and walked the short length of sidewalk along the river up to the spring, which wasn’t visible until we got right next to it. It was early on a spring morning, and we were lucky. There were a couple of people taking pictures, walking around the horseshoe-shaped limestone shelf that embraced the spring, but there was no one in the water so the spring boil was clearly visible as it bubbled up from the turquoise depths.

Khenpo and I stood in silence and watched the sparkling water until I realized our time was up. “We’d better go,” I said, and we turned back toward the car.

“This is a really unusual place,” Khenpo said after we had turned away from the spring. “Thank you for bringing me to see it.”

“Do you think there might be a naga here?” I asked him.

A tiny proto-smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Yes, I think maybe so,” was all he said.

Some miles down the road, after we’d left the spring far behind, Khenpo looked at me and again said, “That was a very unusual place. Thank you for taking me to see it.”

I had an interview with Khenpo later that day, in the afternoon. “Khenpo,” I began, “this morning I took you to see the spring near where I live. Our springs are threatened now by so many things—they’re being polluted, and people want to pump water out of our rivers and put it in bottles and take it away to be sold. Would you please pray that our springs and rivers will be protected?”

Khenpo thought for a minute. “Don’t you think,” he asked, “that other people may have need of that water?”

Then it was my turn to think for a minute, and of course I remembered how we all needed bottled water, even here where water was plentiful, when the tropical storms came through and knocked out our power so the pumps on our wells wouldn’t work.

“Yes,” I answered, “I understand that. But I also know that if all our water gets taken away, there will be nothing left to support the people and animals and fish who depend on the water we have now.”

“I will pray, then,” Khenpo said, “for an auspicious balance.” I understood his answer to mean that yes, there would come a time when we would have to surrender some of our water for a greater good—the benefit of other sentient beings. With global warming now melting the glaciers and ice caps in Khenpo’s Himalayan homeland, that time may not be far off. Himalayan ice is the source of many of Asia’s great rivers, and when the ice is gone, there will be millions of people left in a region with practically no fresh water.

Khenpo’s visit inspired me to do some reading about nagas, which are really fascinating creatures. Often depicted in Asian art as part snake, part human, they are sometimes the guardians of the treasure texts hidden by the 8th-century Tibetan sages Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and his consort and principal disciple, Yeshe Tsogyal, for discovery in later eras when those texts will be especially beneficial. And nagas are strongly associated with bodies of water, especially springs, as well as great and magical trees.

It turns out that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all share the idea of nagas. As my friend Khandro relates on her web site, “In the language of Kashmir, the word for ‘a spring’ is naga…A large number of temples were built near springs and were dedicated to the worship of nagas…Most probably, treating springs and rivers with great reverence wittingly or unwittingly resulted in the ecological balance necessary for a healthy and natural interaction between the environment and man."

I love this idea of temples being built near springs, and treating springs and rivers with great reverence. I’d love it if every spring in Florida had its own temple, even a small one, because the temple would reinforce the sacredness of those spots where pure, cleansing water rises, unbidden, from the unseen depths. Our springs are magical, numinous places, and little temples might make people stop and think before they vandalize the areas around the springs, dump things like tires and railroad ties into the water, or forget to pack out their trash when they leave after a day of swimming.

I wonder how much our whole world would change if we treated all of our great natural features with reverence—and if we wouldn’t be better off for doing so.

(to be continued)

The picture above was taken at Ichetucknee Springs. Can you see the face of the naga? J

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