Cultivating Maitri: Parenting in the Native American Church

I don’t know if this current generation of children is any different than those that came before, but I certainly know as a middle-aged Buddhist and practitioner of traditional shamanic medicine, the coming of our first child Maitreya was a far greater event than my arrival signified for my folks in the 1960s. During my daughter’s first months, our house seemed to be swimming in divine pheromones, and I often quipped that if we were in India we’d be carrying about my daughter on an altar, offering incense, and singing to her throughout the day.

All joking aside, our spiritual practice did quickly change as we became aware of how important a task we had been given: to not pass on the mechanical ways of being that caused such suffering in our families, as well as our culture at large, to our newly come child.

Maitreya has also reminded me anew of how deeply the congruence between indigenous and Buddhist practices runs, a fact I only had an inkling of until my wife and I spent a year in the Amazon jungle apprenticing with Juan Flores, an Ashaninca shaman living outside of Pucallpa, Peru. It was then the stories of Ch’an literature, filled with fox spirits, separated souls, and mountain deities finally began to make real, indigenous, sense.

There we became accustomed to how, for people still immersed in a living, sentient cosmos rather than the dead, mechanical one we have inherited from the European Enlightenment, this world and the next interpenetrate, and as with Buddhism, their concern is how to walk the way of life and death, how to understand the many worlds in greater depth. Indigenous practices also, we discovered, address the Great Matter. As our teacher Juan Flores often instructed us about ayahuasca, the psychoactive plant medicine central to Amazonian shamanism, “ayahuasca teaches you how to die and be reborn.”

I had not sung in ceremonies, not having received any icaros, the shamanic songs that mediate plant/spirit relations, until the evening of Rohatsu 2004, when I asked permission to chant a few sutras to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment. To my surprise, the Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo was immediately accepted as appropriate to the medicine way of the forest. It turned out I had received icaros after all! The next day the shaman’s apprentice approached me and asked me to teach him “the icaro of the Buddha.”

I had not encountered much focus upon children and families in the vegetalista tradition, however, so it came as a real delight when I realized the good folks in the Native American Church seriously loved their children. During my first teepee, in the early morning hours, bleary eyed from intense dreams and the long vigil at the sacred fire, I beheld a handful of big guys vigorously chanting, accompanied by the pounding of a water drum, “Daddy loves his little one. She’s his morning star. Daddy loves his little one. May she live in joy with every day…”

Newly come into fatherhood, I was thoroughly charmed. Our own child had come into the world accompanied by the icaros I had learned from my own maestro in the Amazon, but precious little of my experience with shamanic song had been addressed to children, much less had there been such a strong communal embrace of them. To discover the Native American Church sings many songs to bless “all the children of the world” during their ceremonies was satisfying indeed.

There are unsuspected depths within these indigenous ways, however, and I soon found I had only glimpsed the surface of the Native American’s love for their little ones.

In another ceremony I sat listening to a traditional tale told by a member of the Diné, or Navaho, tribe who had come to co-lead the work, which spoke to a sacred dimension in children reminiscent of Christ’s teaching that children already live in the Kingdom of Heaven and we must become as one of them to enter therein.

Here’s the story, as I recall it:

After the creation of human beings, the gods realized they had to make a special dispensation for this new race, who appeared too helpless and maladapted to their environment to survive. As they sat in council weighing the matter, a little human baby played in the far corner of the hogan. Absorbed in their deliberations, they didn’t notice that a beam of light had entered through the door and traversed the length of the hogan to strike the wall just above the baby. Fascinated, the child reached up and, taking hold of the light beam, pulled himself up, leaning with wobbly legs upon it. Then a second beam cut through the interior, striking the wall just above the first. Seeing this, the baby threw his blanket over the first beam and clambered up it to reach it. Pulling himself on top of the second beam, he sat there gurgling contentedly.

At that moment, the divine ones looked up from their council and beheld the child balancing upon the light beams. Astonished and wide-eyed, they pointed at him and whispered among themselves, “Look at that child! How did he just do that?”

“Those were the divine ones,” the story teller concluded, “and even they couldn’t understand the wonderful capacity that little children have!”

This truly miraculous power of children hit home at the conclusion of another practice within the Native American tradition: the sweat lodge.

It had felt like a night of open heart surgery for all within the darkened cavern. As the water had poured, with prayers for healing and guidance, upon the red-hot stones the steam and heat had begun sloughing off layers of anger and shame among us. My own tears came, recalling my own daughter’s bouts with anguish, her cries emerging from depths that I felt helpless to touch and comfort her in. How raw it was, how primal, this human inheritance my daughter had come into.

My fractured hand, still swollen and bandaged that evening, had come from punching a wall when my daughter’s cries had rent my own heart a month earlier, I confessed in the lodge, finally starting to come to terms with my self-destructive actions.

At the ceremony’s conclusion I crawled out into the cool night air, weakly traversing the way in the darkness to a water hose, doused myself and drank deeply. Going to the fire where stones still radiated their force among the coals, I rested, still in prayer, asking my daughter Maitreya’s forgiveness for all my shortcomings as a father, aware of how through fear I had grown callous, repeating the old saw, “We all survived these things and came out okay…”

Yet it was a mask, obscuring the true countenance. This I understood as the divine nature of my daughter dawned upon me again, her effortless perfection unsurpassed even by the holy ones. I could feel my face relaxing and opening again as I gazed into the sky, and a deep, ineluctable joy coming around the bend of my vision.

“If then it is impossible to get impatient with my daughter,” I asked, “how can I get angry with my wife, who I love as well?”

All the complications of adult communication rolled over me, all the implicit and explicit demands and concessions of married life, yet did not my wife share the same fundamental nature as my daughter? Do we not all equally share in the marvelous abundance of Maitreya, the one-thus-come?

In fact, don’t all beings share in it? I asked the night sky.

My anguish dissolved, and I found myself ranging with wild exuberance through the Buddhist practice of extending compassion to all beings, charging into the most distressed regions of my memory and discovering that there, too, lo and behold, Maitreya’s nature held true!

Fear is like a magician’s deception, as the ancient texts told us, for the nature of the cosmos is as pure as my daughter’s, I saw. What had been such a laborious struggle before, stingily extending my compassion to enfold that loathsome creature, became as unfettered as an eagle’s soaring. I had been freed by my daughter’s unsurpassable grace, my child whose nickname, I reflected with delicious irony, is Maitri, “loving kindness” in Sanskrit, the very name of the practice I had just entered into.

“All beings by nature are Maitreya,” I murmured like a mantra. It had taken my nine month old daughter to finally open my eyes to what the sages had been trying to teach me for decades.
We’ve had centuries of obscuration of our children’s divine nature by now: the Augustinian Catholic doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment privileging of language and reason over direct, primitive apprehension, the Freudian theory of polymorphous perversity in children, and the list goes on…

Clearly, it’s time to start listening to our indigenous elders to correct our distorted views, and start working with their medicines to restore the clarity of our vision. This is a seed, a giving forth of a “fresh shoot so fair” in us, that this new generation offers us.

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