29 November 2008

Faces of truth

Faces of truth

Yesterday's post was partly about the ‘lamenting’ which was necessary in order for Black Elk to receive guidance from the thunder beings. The next problem is how to make the guidance available to the community for whose sake it was given. Since the Ogalala Sioux were not ‘people of the Book’, the medium of a written text was not an option. The tribal elders decided on a heyoka ceremony. Heyokas are sacred clowns; the next chapter of Black Elk Speaks describes how they carried out their mission on this occasion. Black Elk has this to say about the practice:
Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.

But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for.

The ‘two faces of the truth’ will ring a bell, as it were, for those familiar with Case 3 of the Buddhist koan collection called the Blue Cliff Record:
Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, ‘Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?’ The Great Master said, ‘Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.’
— Cleary and Cleary (1977, 18)

Buddhist writings also share another natural image with Black Elk when they refer to ‘the truth of vision’ coming upon the world as ‘the rain of dharma’. Buddhas bestow this rain in whatever form it must take in order to be absorbed — for a sign is not a sign unless somebody reads it. Sometimes it takes tears to open the heart, and sometimes a bit of clowning.

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