Monk and Shaman
With knowledge of the possibility of Asian Pacific Islanders' contact with the Natives of the New World, I developed the idea of a hypothetical meeting between a Midewiwin shaman and a Buddhist monk. The monk may have been on an ocean voyage, as Buddhism is a missionary religion, and he blown off course landing somewhere on the west coast of the New World. Understanding that the Native spirituality includes concepts that are important to Buddhist spirituality, such as transcendence, and knowing that both Native and Buddhist spirituality derive human empathy from a relationship with the natural environment, it would be likely that these two spiritual men would bond quickly have much to discuss and benefit each other spiritually.
Since this hypothetical
scenario seeks to create though the meeting a comparison between Buddhist and
Native spiritualities, the exact place the Buddhist monk might have landed is
less important than the land he may have traveled to meet his shaman
friend. Ideally, he would want to meet the shaman close to the place of
the inception of the Midewiwin medicine society, the present state of
Since the Jesuits in the Michigan area were damaging the Natives at that time, it would be best for the Buddhist and Midewiwin to meet in an area unmolested by the Jesuit priests. Also because the Midewiwin network was challenging local native leaders who were bonding with the French, the Midewiwin moved their spiritual centers away from populated areas towards the west. From information in the Midewiwin prophecy document from the Anishabe tribe, it is likely that Midewiwin power center was in Indiana. Indiana at the time had forested rolling hills, many fish-stocked lakes and rivers, and was therefore rich in resources; it would have been ideal for both our hypothetical meeting as well as spiritual development.
Belonging to a hunter/gatherer and nomadic culture, New World Natives adjusted to the cycles of the natural environment they depended on by making themselves a component of the culture empathically. They derived not only food from the natural environment, but also their health. As they were a component of the environment themselves, their psychology was integrated empathically into the life of the environment, especially the animals. The lives of the animals intertwined with theirs, yet they were dependent on the meat of the animals as hunter/gatherers. A dichotomy existed, a contradiction between their empathic connection, and their physical needs that was resolved with the development of the spiritual act of apologizing ritually to the animal for killing it. Sometimes the killing of an animal for food also included the absorption of the spirit of the animal into the individual psychology of the Native; shamans extended this idea to include participation of the animals in medicine.
The visiting monk would have certainly been excited to learn that the manifestation of the Native concept of God was the Great Spirit in the cosmos. The Great Spirit, being in such a distant part of the natural environment, was aloof and related to humanity only indirectly through intermediaries, the animals in the forests. To the Midewiwin, the Great Spirit communicated through two intermediaries: a rabbit who was the Great Spirit's servant and an otter, an animal closer to humanity. The monk would have noticed that the medicine and spiritual artifacts of the Midewiwin where kept and carried in an otter skin pouch. Buddhists, as animal lovers, empathically feel the suffering of animals; the monk would have felt bad for the otter that was killed to create this pouch. But Buddhists are pragmatic; their empathic approach is to accept and benefit the community within the surrounding environment by making small but relevant changes. The monk would probably encourage in the future a symbolic use of the otter's pelt by making one from fabric rather than having to see the Midewiwin kill another otter. In the discussion between monk and shaman about the importance of the life of the otter, the Buddhist monk would naturally want to lead the Natives to the idea that they should let the animals live by living themselves on things that they can grow, rather than by killing animals. The monk would be helpful to the Natives by showing that the agricultural culture of the Asian garden farmer has been minimal in its environmental impact, and therefore its level of respect for nature, and efficient in its development of sophisticated foods and fibers.
Not all the Natives of the New World were hunter/gatherers. Many Native cultures in North America had themselves turned completely to agriculture in places, but not in area of the American Midwest. The Midewiwin, being initially Ojibwa, very likely reached areas in the Southwest where they may have experienced agricultural living based on the native staple maize, and it is even possible that the Ojibwa were partially descendant from agriculturalists from the Southwest as we know that in past millennia the Southwest was much wetter and sustained farming. Climate change probably forced northward Native migration as well as increasing dependence on hunting for food.
The metamorphosis from hunter/gatherer to agriculturalist is an important one for Lewis Mumford, as humans are far better suited to community living than solitary wandering. Only hunters who could not make the conversion to being more social stayed in the forests to keep killing animals; he asserts that the hunters then not only killed animals, but killed each other forcing the hunters to band together to create what we think of today as armed aggression --war.
Buddhist thinkers have been aware of the empathic relationship with the environment derives from their historical relationship with the environment; that they must themselves be descendant of from hunter/gatherer tribes. This would make the Buddhist monk ideally skilled to help in the transformation of Native culture in the face of European expansion. In the area of self-preservation through self-defense --include ideas of empathy with opponents to prevent conflict-- are well developed in Native culture. The Midewiwin not only resisted enslavement and annexation by Europeans, but have proved warrior abilities as American soldiers in every recent military conflict America has experienced. The final goal in the Midewiwin Anishabe prophecy, the Eighth Fire, is in fact in peace with the Whites who have annexed the public domain of the free lands.
So what is empathy?
Particularly difficult when discussing empathy finding precise meaning; so many words used can have opposing meanings; some words can be used to justifying conflict. For instance, respect and humbleness are both ideas necessary for interaction with the natural environment; yet, in my experience, respect and humbleness can mean fear and passivity in some contexts. Passion is often associated with emotionally based attacks, and community is often a tool used for structural control; yet passion and community combined are how we advance culturally in society. Goleman's high road / low road analogy for mapping the pathways of human thought can have wildly different meanings, especially when applied to the social mapping of society. One word that stands aside from misuse, however, is the word understanding. The conceptual construction of things that are well understood, ideas that are confirmed in deep regions of thought, as with meditation, can be used throughout humanity to construct a foundation of knowledge in the community that is empathic and beneficial to the environment and therefore humanity.