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By Shebar Windstone

Peter Gold's photographs illustrate his books Tibetan Reflections: Life in a Tibetan Refugee Community (1984); Altar of the Earth: The Life, Land and Spirit of Tibet (1987); Tibetan Pilgrimage (1988); and Navajo & Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit (1994). Since 1965, Mr. Gold has lived with and studied the cultures of Tibetans, Native Americans of the US Southwest and Mexico, Alaskan Yupik (Eskimo), African-Americans of the US and the Caribbean, and Georgians living in the Caucasus and Turkey. Formerly Curator of Collections at Indiana University's Mathers Museum of Anthropology, Folklore and History, he currently teaches on the anthropology faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In this interview, he discusses his life and work, focusing on his most recent book and the import for Westerners of Navajo and Tibetan ways of life.

Dineh image of cosmos

I'd like to ask you about your background. There's no easy label for you; you're an anthropologist, a writer, a photographer, a musician, a sculptor, and an explorer of spirituality, people and cultures in many different domains. How did that happen, and how does that affect your work?

Two things come to mind. Firstly, having grown up in New York City, I've always had a multicultural orientation. And secondly, I look at my work as being a bridge between the values, perennial ideas and expressive arts of other cultures and those of my own society, which I see as being sorely in need of the invigoration of the ethics and values of our brothers and sisters in other cultures. I explore, I do art and music, because the arts are the major channel for communicating these ideas, the vehicle by which universal ideas and practices can come to us and enrich us. The multicultural side of my background has sensitized me to the fact that, if human cultures have survived for hundreds or thousands of years, it's because they've worked out a lot of the problems that are inherent in just being human. And as a result, they have great wisdom to teach us, because we're a rather adolescent culture, both European and American culture, and we haven't really dealt with or surmounted a lot of the challenges of living together in society and becoming individuals who have developed into the best versions of themselves. Certain cultures which we call "spiritual" cultures, such as those of Native Americans and Tibetans and other indigenous and ancient-based cultures of the world have worked out a lot of the questions and have institutionalized in their cultural artifacts, ideas and artistic expressions the means for creating a better society and better people within that society — more effective and integrated people. I see myself as communicating this wisdom in living to my own society.

Is there really a "universal" truth or wisdom, or might one not argue that there really is a multiplicity of richnesses and different wisdoms, each of which is specific to the people or culture or place or time in which that wisdom or those spiritual skills arise and are used? Is there anything that is really directly applicable to Americans or to New Yorkers or to Websurfers in 1996? Or does what we need have to come out of who we are and our own personal or cultural backgrounds?

I think the answer is both - that there are universals underlying human behavior and perceptions of the world and one's place in it, but they manifest as idiosyncratic to each particular culture. In Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom, I tried to express what I saw as four basic universal ideas and practices, which are shared by these two far-flung societies. The emphases that are placed on certain patterns of behavior and ideas vary from one culture to the next. Still, I think, all human cultures that have ancient roots and live according to what might be called natural law, that are constantly reflecting off of the environment and of the essentials of living and dying, share these four principles.

First, there's the concept of a dynamic equilibrium in which you're constantly trying to keep a walking balance, what the Navajo would call "walk in beauty" and the Tibetans call "the middle path," in which you don't go to extremes; extremes are just devices for reminding you of where you don't want to be in life. You want to find a balance between being expansive and being conserving, in contrast, for example, to the way American society tends to be constantly shooting out in all directions, either in an entrepreneuristic manner or trying to save the world or to communicate capitalism and The American Way. But the fact is that yin and yang, expansiveness and conservatism, are just aspects of one total system, a kind of dynamic equilibrium. In my book, I talk about "balancing and unifying earth with sky," the concept that you're at a middle place, that you have your head in the sky and your feet on the earth and you try to be a link between them in your own life.

In reading your book, I was struck by the number of dualities we live with on a daily basis: ideal vs. reality, earth vs. sky, macrocosm vs. microcosm, self vs. universe, male vs. female, black vs. white, night vs. day...

Well, we live lopsided in one duality or the other; we kind of find ourselves in one or the other. The idea that seems to prevail in American society is "You're wrong, I'm right." Or "That's wrong, so I'm going to go to the other direction to right that wrong." But it doesn't work that way. If there isn't an agreed-upon concept of "Everything has to keep in balance, so now we're going to act as if these both matter," then the concept of going to one extreme to right the other extreme is only going to cause imbalance. It's like a pendulum. But Navajos and Tibetans never think in these terms; they think, "All is in walking that fine line of balance."

Or that the internal is the external; the self is the world.

Right. The microcosm is an expression of the macrocosm; the skin which coats us all is not the boundary between the cosmos at large and the individual; everything interpenetrates at all times. There's a wonderful Creek Muskogee poet named Joy Harjo who said: "Remember, you are in this universe, and this universe is in you." There's a sense of responsibility, just as the Dalai Lama talks about universal responsibility, out of which comes a sense of compassion. Since you are in this universe and this universe is in you, we are constantly exchanging atoms as we breathe with one another — even at this moment the words are resonating in our minds and transforming ourselves. In fact, the Navajos and Tibetans will tell you that, if you say something, it will put that vibration out there and eventually it will materialize. So you have this incredible responsibility in being very careful of how you express yourself. The responsibility arises not only in the Navajo and Tibetan sense of how you and the universe interpenetrate, but in all the other indigenous cultures I've studied. In fact, it's found in medieval alchemical concepts in our culture, from before the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, when people realized that we all share a kind of "spark of mind" and a "breath of life," and this is the measure of whether something is sentient or not; we're constantly sharing this breath of life, this subtle energy, with all other beings. I talked about this in the first part of the book, "Awakening and Connecting to the Nature of Things." Naturally you have to have a sense of compassion and universal responsibility; or, as the Navajo would say, you have to develop "reasonability." Because you and all other sentient beings (the Buddhist term) or earth-surface walkers, swimmers, flyers and crawlers (the Navajo terms) — you are of the same nature, and so you must have a sense of compassion and responsibility; not to do so would go against all natural law. So how you and the universe are connected is a universal, but the understanding manifests in ways or terms that are specific to the culture.

It's a very practical conceptual paradigm: the force of life, and the nature of the awareness of mind. This is the measure that ancient cultures have used, and it works well; it's a good measure of looking at things instead of "What is the force vector?" or "What is the genetic structure?" That is all very valuable, but it's not practical. What both these and other cultures also share is the holistic concept of "the mandala view" of self and cosmos, that you've got to find a stable center in this changing, seething world. All the forces that are outside of you and simultaneously within your bodymind can be likened to a four-directional mandala, where it's like the dawn, noon, sunset and nighttime; the seasons of the year; the quadrants of your life. These are movements in a symphony, and you've got to find your balance in the center of all of this and, in a sense, harness these forces instead of shrinking from them. And this comes out of your experience of the natural world in your daily life. But when you're living atomized in some urban environment, it's kind of hard to even know what time of day it is.

I'd like to return to the question of what Americans seek in non-Western cultures, and the aspects of what I would call spiritual tourism, that it's something we watch and try to buy up. There were aspects of that in your early books, where it seemed that spirituality or enlightenment was something you hoped to imbibe just by standing there watching it. In relation to both Tibetan Buddhism and Native American cultures, some people think that by buying a ticket and watching a show, or by buying a product — whether it be a stick of incense or a moccasin — they can thereby bring into themselves the spiritual essence of that object, like taking a pill.

I should think that if a material object is generated out of the proper state of mind or perspective, it theoretically can call up an association or a process in a person's mind that might be beneficial. For example, mantra — sacred utterance or sacred sound — according to the Indo-Buddhist concept of it, actually has an effect on your unconscious, putting you in a certain mental state or purifying your mind.

If only as a placebo effect or as a result of self-hypnosis.

Those two terms are a Western attempt to explain a deep mental process which we don't have the conceptual equipment to explain.

No doubt it does set off certain body-chemical effects and hormonal responses that do have a beneficial effect! We just don't have the equipment to measure it.

Right. Well, I want to say that in traditions like the Navajo or Tibetan, the transformative characteristics of what we would call "religion" are right at the surface, available to people. Most people in the world have an urge to have a spiritual experience — to find some transforming experience in their lives, to find peace within, to become healthy, to become a useful person. Whatever the culture is, such as our own, they look to the wisdom and technology to attain these goals. And that wisdom and technology is that which we happen to call religion. The problem is that, in the Western established religions, to get the techniques and the wisdom to accomplish these goals, you have to wade through all this exoteric stuff. And there's a whole political dimension, and a social control dimension, which coopts and perhaps even blocks people from getting to the heart of what we call religion. So people become frustrated and they drop out of it. That's what I think has been happening. This is why, for example, many of us have become "JuBu" — Jewish Buddhists. We're told "Being Jewish is a way of life" and that religion permeates every aspect of life. They say that, but it doesn't seem to be true any more. At least, not in America.

It depends on which practitioners you speak with, actually. For the Chassidim, for example, it is daily life; there's not a separation.

Yes, but if you're a non-Chassid, you try to access that! Well, it's gotten better in recent years. But I've certainly had the experience that didn't match up. Whatever the reason, it's gotten scattered. It's not been available. But there are certain traditions, like Buddhism or the Native Americans' particular spiritual path, where it's really right there, accessible on the surface. Now, the Native American way may not be easily accessible to us, because it's a very culture-specific thing. And in old Tibet, it wasn't accessible to very many people either. Certainly not to Westerners. But these days, the Native American and Tibetan "takes" on the spiritual way of life are (1) more accessible to us, and (2) more importantly, are more accessible to their people. Their "transformative technology" and wisdom are right there on the surface and available. So we look to these traditions as pathways to a spiritual way of life.

I think both what draws us to things like Navajo and Tibetan culture and, at the same time, what makes it so difficult for us to access such cultures and such spiritual dimensions, is that it's not just the spiritual, the religion, the something you can do like going to church for two hours on a Sunday. It is something that permeates every aspect of daily life, and one's way of proceeding and acting and moving and breathing in the world. So it's hard to keep a job and not change anything else in your life and be connected to those traditions as well, just as it would be hard to follow all 613 Jewish commandments, to say a prayer every time you see the sunrise or bite into a piece of fruit. It's mindfulness, is what it comes down to. But it's very hard to survive mindfully in a world that impinges upon your senses constantly, or in which you have to deny your life and being in order to survive and keep your job.

That's the trick, and that's the ultimate goal: to abide in the ultimate state in your everyday life. There's a traditional Buddhist prescription:

See all beings as buddhas;
Hear all sounds as mantras;
Know all reality as mandala.

You have to do that, and you have to function in this world. And that which allows you to function in this world is the act of purifying or transforming everything that comes in, into at least an understanding of it, and then transforming it into ideal models. Actually, it is to keep yourself from just being in a reactive mode, and to strengthen your psyche in a way that you can deal with adversity. The Navajo and Tibetans make this technology the centerpiece of their lives. They've made their spirituality the focus of living because they know it's the only way that they can live well and fully.

What do you mean when you say "technology"?

The mechanisms and the know-how by which you can interact in as positive and useful a manner as possible with your environment and keep it renewable, whether it's a physical or a social environment, where everything is renewable, everything is a win-win situation arising. Where cooperation reigns, where peace of mind and peace in society are established and maintained. There are certain ways of doing it. You strengthen yourself. You don't react and then destroy.

It's actually more about being at peace within yourself.

Yes, if we're at war within ourselves, we're at war with each other.

As you point out in your book, we recreate ourselves. The world is a reflection or a recreation of mind.

At the same time, the mind is a recreation or reflection of the world. It's all interconnected, I guess. So far in this conversation, I've outlined three philosophical principles. There is a fourth, which describes how to embark on the so-called spiritual way of life, how to really internalize these techniques and know-how (wisdoms) into one's being. There are some people out there who just "get it" immediately; they're the lucky ones. The rest of us have to be potentiated or sensitized to these qualities, and get these qualities through a guided experience that embodies them. This guided experience is what I call "the rite of transformation," in which you're introduced to convenient representations of ideal states of being, of thinking, feeling, and expressing, or what we call gods or deities. Navajo call them holy people; Tibetans call them buddhas. Each of these has different qualities of action and expression and thought. You're introduced to these and, in fact, you're guided into how you can envision yourself as becoming them themselves or, at least, like them, through specific rites of transformation. Tibetans call them "tantric initiations"; the Navajo call them "chantways." They have the same structure, the same underlying script. There are really two parts to each; if you envision a see-saw, you have a fulcrum that the see-saw is sitting on. The first side, which goes down, which you first move into, is the rites of purification phase, where you purify people of affliction (physical and mental) or wrong view of their place in the scheme of things — take away the affliction or imbalance, whatever it may be, do it in a ritual manner in which the person or people who are participating really believe and know that it's happening, that they're being purified of mental or physical imbalance or dis-ease. And then the second part has to do with entering a more purified state, by means of identifying with the ideal qualities of action, expression and thought embodied by these different deities.

Which in both cultures is actually getting back to the pure state of one's own original or inherent being.

Ultimately that's what it's all about. They've just been codified by these two spiritual traditions in what we would call deities or gods.

Which is a way or externalizing or projecting outward, or finding some way of identifying with, the qualities that one disowns within oneself, or has gotten separated from in the course of life.

And which exist simultaneously outside of oneself in the cosmos at large — in the macrocosm — and within. But which maybe have been lost or temporarily covered over within oneself. The potential exists. There's no concept, for example, of "original sin" in those traditions, that you've screwed up, you've lost it and you're never going to regain paradise. Paradise can always be regained, but you're going to have to work at it. And they have the means by which you can regain this inner paradise and, therefore, an outer paradise.

Here there's more a sense of an original goodness. Or enlightenment or clarity or voidness, maybe.

The Navajo call it Beauty. It's like a cosmic beauty and balance and order and harmony inherent in both micro- and macrocosm or buddha-nature, you could say. The Tibetans also have a term, "auspiciousness"; it conveys this as well. This ideal state, which abides in the cosmos at large, also (potentially) abides within oneself. Sometimes we've created roadblocks, obstacles to realizing that, and we have to refind, restore ourselves into this state within, so that a person can be the best version of oneself and a useful member of society. In societies that have no word for "religion" — in which what we call "religion" — is actually conceived as being a way of life - people need some ritualized access to models for what they have to do in daily life, in order to identify with ideal qualities that exist outside and within. So you do a spiritual practice when you invoke these embodiments of the ideal qualities — that is, the deities — and identify with them through your prayers and your imaginings and your chants on a daily basis. That's what the Navajo and Tibetans do.

Your book largely explores the parallels and analogies between Navajo and Tibetan beliefs and practices. Are there significant differences? For example, Navajo ways of viewing and dealing with death, which is such a big part of Tibetan Buddhism.

It's not that there's a difference so much as a matter of emphasis and degree. The general assumption is that Navajos don't want to deal with death at all or are afraid of it. If you really compare the two, the Tibetans have an equal fear of a certain kind of death as do the Navajo. You could call it "death with rancor," with an unquiet mind. Navajos, for example, say that if a person dies of a ripe old age, dies at their time, and they've lived a spiritual life, they will not leave any kind of ghostly residue which can be malevolent and haunt the family and cause disease and misfortune. Because basically their inner force of life, their inner winds, are pure. Tibetans have the same kind of death-ghost concept. If a person at the moment of death has negative thoughts or attachments, they're also going to leave a ghostly residue, and it can also be harmful. So in essence, it's not that different. There are differences, but the differences are not that severe, across the board.

What I'm trying to do in the book is not to present a comparative study but, rather, to say that there are certain bottom-line, basic universal principles of leading a spiritual way of life. So it's more like I'm illustrating what I believe to be the basic, essential premises and practices. I didn't feel the necessity to say that I'm being "objective." I think that's false consciousness.

I sometimes felt like a reluctant participant in this whole endeavor. I never intended to write the book. But it needed to be written, and I had a weird enough lifestyle to be able to do it. In my other books, I have to admit, I wanted to Write A Book, to make a personal statement. I also wanted to educate people — there was some pure motivation in it! But this book, I didn't even want to write it!

It wrote you.

It wrote me! It's like the cosmos tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You have the experience and the weird enough lifestyle &151; it's you! Here it is!"

You were a research assistant to Margaret Mead. What influence did she have upon your work? For example, did she sensitize you to the role of the female in the culture?

I don't know that she necessarily sensitized me to the role of the female, but she sensitized me to how important it was to understand other cultures as a way of enriching one's understanding of one's life and one's own world. That necessarily gave me an appreciation for the feminine character and quality, because these other cultures almost invariably celebrated both aspects, in their mythology, their ritual and their view of reality.

It seemed from your writing that, at the same time that there's a sense of unity, there still is a sense of duality within the male and female.

No, the dynamics of action and thought which we attribute to "male" or "female," are conceived of as being inextricable units of a unity which both male and female have to develop within themselves regardless of what their external behavior is. Deities may be male or female, but they're always shown as being in union.

Like the Tibetan mother/father, wisdom/compassion depictions.

You have that in Navajo with Earth Woman/Sky Man. Basically, a human being, regardless of gender, has to develop these characteristics of expression, thought and action, which could be symbolized by male or female. Therefore the goddess is not only venerated in both traditions, but one identifies with the goddess or goddess qualities, regardless of what one's particular gender is. And with the god equally. In fact, both traditions inherently, even if they constantly don't talk about it, know that both god and goddess characteristics have to be developed fully within. When you know that both are part of the unity, then you can venerate one or the other. There's never a question in a person's mind but that both exist in the way the world operates and also the way one operates within. Whereas, again, in our way of looking at things, it seems that we go to one extreme or the other and we get hung up on one or the other and we attribute to it a physical gender, when it's really a state of thought and action that is to be complemented. They're really conceived of as complementary qualities and energies, rather than being opposites.

I want to ask you about women practitioners in both cultures. It seems that both Navajos and Tibetans have a very rich pantheon of female deities and other female forces such as dakinis, for example, in the Tibetan culture. But we both know that women are largely excluded from positions of rinpoches or tülkus or teachers, or from practices such as overtone chanting and ritual dancing within Tibetan culture. I get the impression from your book that Navajo chanters are almost exclusively male and that teachings are passed down from one male to another, excluding the female within Navajo culture. Is that correct?

There aren't as many Navajo women chanters, but there are some. And there are women visionaries, women teachers. But not nearly as many as the males. Women and men both dance, for example, in the Night Way, the ninth night of ritual dancing. And also — this is very important — these different chantway lineages (e.g., the Shooting Way, Blessing Way, Night Way) all originated out of visionary experiences, likened to spiritual journeys, by individual ancestors of the Navajo. And they all tell the story of a hero or heroine who goes on a journey, who undergoes privations to go to the land of the gods and bring back the medicine and teachings. There's always a male and a female branch, a hero and heroine, involved. And I fully believe what the Navajo say, that these are ancient experiences by people in ancient times. So obviously, these are recognized as having been done by women as well as by men.

I don't know about the establishment of the Tibetan monastic tradition, but the formal level of human consciousness development seems to be dominated by men. Whether we like it or not, that's the reality of it. But these days, there are more and more great Tibetan women teachers, rinpoches, visionaries, yoginis, who are out and about. And evidentally in Tibet, while not in sheer numbers nearly as many as the males, there were significant ones, who were recognized as such since ancient times.

One other approach that Margaret Mead took where she seems to have been a real groundbreaker was in her holistic view that all aspects or facets of a culture are interrelated, that you can't look at anything without seeing how it is affected by or affects every other aspect of that culture.

Her teacher, Franz Boas, and she were working in the midst of the colonial era, where people were being dehumanized so that they could be exploited. And Boas, who is considered to be the father of American anthropology, was saying there's a psychic unity of humankind, that all human beings have the same capabilities, the same potential and, therefore, their cultures are all fully integrated, with valid ways of describing reality and means of experiencing it. Naturally, they're fully integrated and balanced systems. I think that's why she looked at everything within a culture as being interconnected - because it is, it has to be! Otherwise, it wouldn't work, because either the society would self-destruct or they would have to change it.

I'm wondering to what degree your book is a hologram of the past, because it doesn't seem to reflect the holes that have been torn in Navajo and Tibetan culture. How could so much be lost — in terms of land, people, teachers, religious texts, songs, musical instruments themselves — without changing every other aspect of those cultures? Are there changes in process now that went beyond what you could have covered in that book?

Personally, I think that Tibetan culture is alive and well. The lamaistic tradition, wherein the lamas or the holders of knowledge are the empowerers of people to do this esoteric practice, has been preserved in exile, while it isn't flourishing as well inside Tibet. Nonetheless, there are still some great lamas inside Tibet. And the Tibetan literary tradition is alive and well in India and Nepal, because they study it in schools, they have monastic study. But there are aspects of the Tibetan culture which are not evident in exile, like the understanding of the earth religion and of the powers of place, which are much more fully alive in Tibet than in exile. Not much has been lost, actually. There are some specifics — some texts have been lost, some lineages have been broken or have withered away for various reasons.

Among the Navajo, there are more people alive today practicing the old religion than ever were alive at any given time in history. The difference is, however, that per capita there are less. There are so many more Navajo, but only about the same number of chanters. But there still is a critical mass, for sure, who are practicing the old religion. Often you'll hear the Navajo say "We're in danger of losing it!" They're always on guard. Similarly, the Tibetans went through a terrible holocaust, in which so much was abruptly interfered with. But remarkably, they've managed to restore it. And for Tibetans, if the oral transmission is not there, then the lineage is broken. You may have the text, but it's worthless.

They both rely largely on oral transmission.

Because it's the only way in which the spark can be passed. Otherwise it's just dead information. Here we are in the West, we're in the Information Age, and we think, all this data and information, the more we have, the better off we are. But it's just worthless stuff if we don't have someone who can show us how it fits into life and the universe. You have to have a transmission by a human being or by example in some way. And the Navajos and Tibetans still have that.

Putting it on Websites, CD-ROMs and TVs isn't going to cut it?

It's all very nice, but there's really no difference between writing on paper and a CD-ROM, in essence. Both have information on them but, if there's no one to help you to interpret it according to how it fits into daily life, big deal! All we're doing is using a more complex means of information storage and retrieval. But have we developed wisdom, have we learned how to process it in our daily life? To pass it on in an effective way? The Tibetans and Navajo still have that means of interpreting it and passing it on in a way so that it can be useful and alive.

Photo of Peter Gold debating with monks in Tibet is © 1994 Maggie Tchir. Dineh image is from the Dineh Alliance. This interview was published in the Spring 1996 issue of Glow: The Net Magazine for Expanding Minds (now offline), and is © 1996 Shebar Windstone and Peter Gold.

Buddhism and Native American Culture

Online Resources

Big Mountain Dineh Relocation Resistance
Center For World Indigenous Studies
DharmaNet International
The People's Paths
Planet Peace

Books around the world from

Books by Peter Gold

Altar of the Earth: The Life, Land, and Spirit of Tibet (Special order)
Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit
Tibetan Pilgrimage (Special order)
Tibetan Reflections: Life in a Tibetan Refugee Community (Out of print)