Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stone Age Spiritual Poetry (sort of)

The Feather of Leban, by John R. Reynolds and Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu

I, member of the Deegyu Tribe, to be a Weejee man
     Once made a spirit journey for the blessing of Leban—
Leban, the mighty warrior, who lives upon the peak,
     Upon the sacred mountaintop whose name one never speaks;
Leban who makes the thunder roar, Leban who makes the rain,
     Leban who topples mighty trees, then makes them grow again.
So like my father's fathers, like the ancient ones of old,
     I too took up that journey to the peak of mist and cold:
To swim the mighty river, then to cross the burning sand,
     And then to climb the mountain, to become a Weejee man.
It is a journey many try, of which none lightly speaks:
     A solitary journey up that solitary peak;
There are no maps to guide one's feet, no signs to point the way;
     No stories told to help one on that most auspicious day.
The only thing the wise men told was, when I met Leban,
     I'd get the eagle feather marking me a Weejee man.
The lodge house of the spirit council's at the village center,
     Which lesser men who failed the test can never hope to enter;
The Great observe the flights of birds, and count woodpecker strokes;
     They learn the language of the water, and of campfire smoke;
They're brothers to the eagle, know the secrets of the wind;
     They mingle with the animals, and talk and sing with them;
They know what days the geese will fly upon their journey South;
     And no untruth is ever, ever spoken from their mouth.
They're taught the magic chants, and how to dance the Spirit Dance;
     And nothing in their discipline is ever left to chance.
My father and his father too were each a Weejee man
     Who knew the many sacred things no low man understands.
     I had to climb that mountain for the blessing of Leban.
I'd walk tall through the village then; I'd pity lesser men;
     I'd bear with quiet dignity the homage paid by them.
One must await the Omen though—one chance is all one gets:
     I ran, I swam, climbed hillsides, that would keep me strong and fit,
Walked barefoot through hot ashes to prepare me for the sand,
     And felt that all I needed was that Omen from Leban.
I waited all the Summer, and I waited all the Fall,
     I watched the river freeze with ice, and snow soon covered all;
     (Could it be I would cross on ice, the desert would be cool?)
Leban won't make it easy—it was in the early Spring;
     I watched the ice begin to break...and heard a bluebird sing;
I could not be mistaken: for it surely was the Omen;
     My mother begged me not to go (She was a tender woman);
At least my father understood; he was a Weejee man,
     And gripped my shoulder, nodding: "It's the Omen from Leban."
He gave his warmest blanket and a flint for starting fires;
     My mother gave her blessings then, and tears were in her eyes;
She clutched me tightly to her breast and said, "Please understand
     That I will always love you if you stay a lesser man."
I wrapped the fire kit in the blanket—had to keep it dry;
     Then waded out, through grinding ice, to make that single try.
I placed my bundle on a floe and pushed it on ahead;
     I'd make it to that far off shore, or I would soon be dead.
The ice pack ground around me as I fought the numbing cold— 
     Perhaps I'm not as worthy as the Weejee men of old?
The thought of failure robbed my strength as I strove for the shore;
     The numbing cold got in my bones, and I could swim no more.
I drifted with the ice floes, and I scraped along the sand,
     And then I knew that I would die a lowly lesser man.
But then I heard a raven croak—it sounded close at hand,
     And with what courage I could find I clawed toward the land:
     Because I knew that raven was an Omen from Leban.
I lay there on that rocky shore too weak to even crawl,
     My body shaking, blue with cold; I'd lost it after all.
The raven perched upon a stone; I saw him cock his head:
     He looked at me as if to say, "Come on now, you're not dead!
You puny little lesser man, how dare you think you can
     Wade little trickles, much less climb the mountain of Leban?
A clod like you is yearning for the feather of Leban!
     You've not the strength to build a fire—do it if you can!"
The raven laughed and flew away. My anger made me warm;
     I built myself a fire, and a shelter from the storm;
I made a bed of spruce boughs, had to build my strength with sleep;
     The burning sand was still ahead, the mountain rough and steep.
Next day I rolled my blanket up and chose a sturdy stick;
     (All round the burning desert was a forest dense and thick
     Of black and twisted thorny trees that rip and tear and prick.)
So then I came upon the desert plain of burning sand
     Where swirls of fire and burned-out ash danced all across the land;
The smoke was dense and burned my eyes, my throat was swelling shut;
     The ground was cracked and fissured where the flames came gusting up;
It seemed like an eternity since I had seen the sky,
     But when I saw the sun again, it was just midway high.
I fought a thorn patch with my stick, with torn and bloody hands…
     Till at my back there lay at last the thorns and burning sand.
I'd frozen, burned, and bled; and now, before my half-blind eyes
     Arose the mystic mountaintop that reached up to the skies—
The mountain Weejee men must climb to get their eagle feather
     From he who makes the thunder, and manipulates the weather;
Leban who makes the ice break up, makes flowers in the Spring;
     Who speaks sometimes with raven croaks, or ways that bluebirds sing.
I rested there a little while, and then I started up
     To where the mighty Spirit Man was resting at the top.
My feet were torn and blistered; and my body ached with pain;
     I slipped and slid and picked me up, and started up again.
I was close to the timberline when night began to fall;
     That night I slept upon a ledge, my back against the wall;
Beyond was where the timber stops; beyond that was the snow 
     Where screaming wind howls through the crags—the place where I must go
To get the eagle feather from the hand of Great Leban;
     Then I could walk with dignity, a tall, proud Weejee man.
I waited for the dawn to come, was eager for the light;
     For this would be the sacred day I'd longed for all my life.
The ledge was hard and narrow, and I didn't get much sleep;
     The grey dawn found me struggling up through ice and snow and sleet,
     Behind me bloody footprints left by my two aching feet.
And as I saw I had it made—my prize was in my reach—
     I stumbled on some ragged hides, and heard weak, plaintive bleats!
     There was an old and near-dead crone a-lying at my feet.
She looked me squarely in the face, she pleaded with her eyes:
     "If you choose not to help me, Son, then I will surely die."
Before me was the summit there, where dwelt the Great Leban;
     Behind me was the poor life of a lowly, lesser man.
This trip I had to make but once; there'd be no second try;
     Yet if I left this ancient crone, then she would surely die.
I knew that I must leave her in this frozen, lonely place—
     And knew that I could not ignore those tears upon her face.
I wrapped her in my blanket, and I rubbed her frozen hands,
     And knew that I would never wear the feather of Leban.
When going down the mountain slope she showed an easy path;
     I built a cheery, warming fire when we were down at last.
She asked, "Which is the better, Son, to lay pride on the shelf,
     Or be a haughty Weejee man who does not like himself?"
I pondered on this thought awhile, and then began to see
     That even as a lesser man I was glad I liked me.
She took a soothing ointment out and rubbed my aching feet;
     The stone I sat upon felt like a downy, cushioned seat;
The firelight made her hair shine, made her eyes look young somehow:
     She rose and stood before me—strong and straight she stood there now.
     She pulled my head up to her lips, and kissed me on the brow:
"You've learned your lessons well, my Son, you've grown up brave and true.
     You've tempered strength with mercy, and Leban will walk with you."
She reached up to my headband then, and with a steady hand
     She placed the eagle feather there that marks a Weejee man
Who'd crossed the frozen river, and who'd conquered burning sand,
     And climbed that awful climb and learned the lesson of Leban.
She stepped into the fire, and in a puff of smoke was gone;
     I think she rode the East Wind back to where we had begun,
     To greet the next aspiring youth who'd be a Weejee man.
So now I chant the Spirit Chant, and dance the Weejee Dance;
     And nothing in my discipline is ever left to chance;
I'm brother to the eagle; I send prayers upon the wind;
     I also help the fallen ones to rise and walk again.
If I feel proud and haughty I remember Great Leban
     Massaged the sore and bloody feet of a lowly lesser man.

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