Harmony with Nature:
Experience and believe in Brahma
Originally published by Yoga Journal China, April 2020
“The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies,
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.”
Cui Hao (704 AD) wrote this poem reflecting on a famous tale about an innkeeper, a beggar, and a yellow crane. As the story goes, there was a man named Xin who owned a small tavern. One day, a beggar appeared asking for a bowl of wine. Mr. Xin did not judge the beggar for his shabby appearance, but instead offered him a large bowl of wine for free.
For some time the man kept coming into the tavern asking for wine. Every time Mr. Xin would serve him without showing even a hint of annoyance.
One day, the man told Xin, “I owe you a lot of money, but I have no money to pay you.” Then he took out an orange peel from his bag and drew a yellow crane on the wall with it.
“Just clap your hands when you have guests here, and the crane will dance,” said the raggedy man. He clapped his hands and sang a song, and almost immediately the crane jumped off the wall and began to dance to the music.
Xin’s pub became famous for the dancing crane. Many visitors came to see the exceptional bird with their own eyes. Mr. Xin’s tavern was never empty – and he became very wealthy.
One day, the man returned, still in the ragged clothes. Mr. Xin thanked the man and offered to provide him with a living for the rest of his life. The man laughed and said, “That’s not the reason why I came here.”
Then, he took out a flute and began to play a tune. As he played his flute, the clouds descended from the sky, and a crane flew down toward them. The man climbed onto the back of the bird and flew up into the sky.
Mr. Xin believed that the man was a Daoist. So, as an expression of gratitude he built a tower on the precise spot where the crane rider flew to the sky. It was named the Huang He Lou – which means “Yellow Crane Tower.”
Who is the beggar and who is the yellow crane? Together they are more than the sum of their parts. We could say that the crane represents nature and the beggar represents human beings. Separately, they only really fulfilled the mundane roles of a poor fellow and a bird, but together they were capable of magical, mystical feats of transcendence. What is the reason that the beggar and his crane appeared? Both beggar and crane represented an opportunity. The beggar presented an opportunity for the innkeeper to be generous and non-judgmental – or to judge him harshly and according to norms. The crane presented an opportunity to experience a bird as a person. As they flew away at the end of the story the crane represented our disappearing natural world and the beggar represented our disappearing belief in magic. The Yellow Crane Tower is located in Wuhan and so it is a fitting contemplation for this time in the world.
But could each of us see a beggar and his bird as an opportunity? Or, would we see them as just a subnormal human magician with a trick bird, looking to benefit themselves. Often, we feel that generosity only benefits the other, not ourselves, but the truth is whatever way we act toward others has an equal effect upon ourselves. In order to be cruel to others we must first be cruel to ourselves, to harm others we must first harm ourselves and to be kind toward others means that we are also kind toward ourselves.
The beggar was no ordinary person though, he was a wizard, or even a yogi. The crane was no ordinary crane but a magic dancer and a daemon or familiar to the wizard. It was the innkeeper’s generosity and graciousness that was the catalyst for the dancing crane; the appearance of the wizard; and the accumulation of the innkeeper’s wealth. The story itself would have no meaning if the innkeeper had chased off the beggar and cursed him. Instead, because the innkeeper acted out-of-the-ordinary we have a fable that endures for centuries and a formula for revolution, personally, nationally and globally. This revolution takes us away from self interest and brings us closer to ways of being that could transform the world we live in with magic and mystery.
Most of us have had the gift of a yoga teacher in our lives. This teacher is someone who has mastered yoga and can teach us the tools and techniques of yoga practice while also embodying the ideals of yoga in their life and inspiring us to strive to accomplish the goals of yoga. Those tools of transformation are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. These practices gradually change us from selfish people, disconnected from nature into evolved realized souls equipped to change the world.
Listen to the world – it is talking to you
But, have you ever wondered who was the first yoga teacher? When the first yogis sought to learn about the world and universes beyond this world where did they look? They probably looked deeply into the world around them – and learned from the beings and things that they shared that world with. If we look at the practices themselves, we have clues to their origin. It makes sense to assume that those first yogis learned Bhujangasana from the snake; they learned Bakasana from the crane; they learned Tittibhasana from the firefly; they learned Vrksasana from the tree, and Tadasana from the mountain. They found the meaning of life revealed in the world around them. They experienced the guru in all aspects of the world. They had a profound and abiding relationship with the world and nature herself. These asanas are the essence of the teachings and our experience of them can inform us about the nature of truth, reality, and transcendence. Or, they can just be a mundane set of exercises. How they appear depends on us in the same way that how the beggar and the crane appeared depended upon the innkeeper and how he saw them. In fact, the whole world appears according to how you see it and you have the power to create magic and mystery, transcending mundanity, or to be a selfish, uncaring victim of your own narrow perception. Depending on our state of mind, that is how the world appears to us.
Disconnection is the problem – connection is the solution
Many centuries after Cui Hao, in 1350, Yogi Swatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and described the ideal room for a yoga practice. It was a room that closed out the natural world – sunlight, wind, rain, and other beings. This method for the domestication of the yogin was to take her out of the natural world. This is a reflection of a process of removing the wildness from the greater culture at large. It is a declaration of war against Mother Nature. This war began thousands of years ago and created a world where humans feel separate and at odds with nature, the elements and animals. The result has been a widening gap between humans and the natural world, eliminating opportunities to meet teachers, magicians, and dancing cranes. Or even, perhaps to learn to fly.
“The room for sadhana should be spotlessly clean, wiped with cow manure and free from animals and insects. It should have small door without a window or cracks. Outside, there should be an open platform with a thatched roof, a water well, and a surrounding fence. The appearance of the hermitage should be pleasant.” HYP 1.13
Windows were seen as creating distraction for the practitioner. Animals and insects are seen as distracting, dirty, or even dangerous, hence the fence. It may make sense for your yoga practice space to be clean, free from insects, animals and weather, but we need to make sure to dedicate sufficient time in our daily lives to reassert these important elements of symbiosis with the Earth. Breaking down the walls and making contact with nature is just as important. Integration with the natural world is the essence of yoga. Otherwise, we find ourselves living in fear of the unknown and alienation from the natural world. In the past human beings found themselves in a constant struggle to overcome the difficulty of living in the world in the face of many obstacles. They created many barriers around themselves for safety and security. At some point in our past this became less of an imperative but because many habits had developed, we continued to reinforce these protective layers against nature and the elements. The time has come toe revolutionize our existence and break down some barriers, let the sunshine in again, and to take a few steps back toward a tangible connection to nature.
Take a walk in the forest
Today, I went for a walk in the forest. Most often the forest is a peaceful and sheltering sanctuary and provides a different kind of parallel universe, another oracle in which to reflect and contemplate. Anywhere in nature can be a scary place. All fear is rooted in a fear of the unknown. What we fear in the forest, mountains, or sea is the unknown, and the best way to overcome fear of the unknown is to get to know it. When you know it – you find out it was you all along! This is exactly why back bending is often fraught with fear. When we are bending backward, we cannot see where we are going. In slowly facing the unknown territory of back bending we come to know it inch by inch, eventually no longer afraid of the unknown that is now the known. Everyday in your yoga practice you end with Shavasana, the seat of the corpse. It is rare for human beings to practice the art of dying to the world of forms, but by reenacting the disappearance of forms, senses, and the elements, the unknown becomes the known and fear subsides.
Over time yogis found themselves removed and insulated from the natural world. It became more difficult to find guru sakshat – the teacher that is always near us. The poem says that yellow crane flew away never to return. The hamsa, or swan is another bird that is an important symbol to the yogi because a swan is a migrating bird that always returns back home. Like hamsa, we need to believe the crane will return in our true heart, and maybe even to Wuhan and the Yangtze River. In the modern time, where we are separated from Cui Hao by over a thousand years, we are separated from each other by borders, fences, and beliefs. We are separated from our teachers by windowless walls. More importantly we are psychically and spiritually disconnected from a time when magic was a natural part of life. We struggle to reconnect with nature; to end the war with Mother Nature and to overcome our fear of the natural world. Yoga can create a bridge between us, our lost heritage, and nature herself.
Practice yoga as a path to compassion
You may feel that to survive this time of violence, disease, and difficulty you must hide your head in the sand and not expose yourself to the natural world. Actually, the remedy for the ills of our time lies in breaking down the barriers between each other and the world of living beings that surrounds us. When selfish actions are supplanted with generosity of spirit, we cease to be strangers in a strange world, and become citizens of the universe. Our teachers are close by awaiting our arrival back from our isolation; our prison of mind and heart. Yoga means “to connect”. That connection is with each other, all of nature, and God.
The practices of Yama and Niyama will grow your compassion. They give a code of living, that if followed, will lead to success in yoga. The five Yamas or “restraints with regard to others,” ask you to practice nonviolence (especially by eating a vegan diet), truth-telling (speak truth to the people), nonstealing (not coveting what others have), sexual conservatism ( not abusing or victimizing others sexually), and non-hoarding (live simply with sincerity). The five Niyamas or “observances with regard to your body and mind” ask that you practice cleanliness (keep the body clean and the mind pure), contentment (practice satisfaction and non-judgement), purification (keep your practice doable, but challenging for steady improvement), study of scripture (read out loud from holy books on a daily basis), worship of God (God is one, paths to God are many). (Read Yoga and Veganism by Sharon Gannon.)
Consult the oracles
“How can modern human beings live sustainably with nature and the animals?”
I cannot assume that I have a special solution to the question posed above by the YJ editors. So I consulted The I Ching, threw the coins, and the result is illustrated. The answer given by the I Ching was amazing and helped me to prepare this article about the connection between a yoga practice and the natural world. It is my belief that the Book of Changes can reflect a parallel reality and shed light on our confusing and difficult problems. The problems in our modern world are definitely confusing and difficult and this three-thousand-year-old oracle could offer some insight.
Study the way all of life is interconnected
My interpretation of the hexagrams that resulted from my question were, in the first case on the left side of the illustration #31 nature and the natural world (the joyous, the lake) is above, and is supported and nourished by the earth (keeping still, mountain) below. The mountain is strong and supportive but the image also represents the fragile nature of the balance in the world, and the interdependence of Earth and all earthly beings.
In a yoga practice the seat – together with the stability and joy of that seat, are signs of the perfection of yoga – the connection to the Earth and all beings. The steady, stable seat that the hexagram refers to is most apparent in Tadasana, or mountain seat where the energy of Earth travels through the legs into the torso to the top of the head (or the up-reaching arms). It embodies the connection between earth and sky, microcosm and macrocosm, created and creator. Standing asanas are connected to the first chakra, just as is the simple act of walking with awareness. These activities strengthen our connection through Muladhara Chakra to the Earth, family and nature.
Start a gentle revolution
The yin in the second line changes into a solid yang line and the hexagram shifts to #28 on the right side, the preponderance of the great. So easily the world moves from balance to imbalance; just one line changes the balance of the natural world into the imbalance represented by Ta Kuo where the heavy center is not supported by the strong legs of Hsien. There is an impending disaster that demands an immediate and measured response. The weight of the heavy center is threatening to crack the roof beam, and the weak support of the broken lines on the top and bottom present an exceptional time that demands exceptional measures. Change must be quick and decisive. The judgement is toward success if we can have somewhere to go – and there is always someplace to go if we have a plan and communicate it to others. This is nothing is to be achieved by force, but only through a gentle revolution. Again, our practices of awareness, nonviolence and fearlessness are called upon.
Take the example of Greta Thunberg, a fearless climate change activist who walks her talk, and talks her walk. Greta is a teenager who has created a movement among young people to change the climate crisis. Through her commitment many people have a new level of awareness of the importance of acting now to create a bright future for the youth of the world. It is a gentle revolution, but a revolution just the same, and it is led by this young girl with a high level of enthusiasm who sees the connection between all beings – in the air we all breath, the water we drink and the Earth that is our Mother. Be surprising – be an optimist for positive future change. We have far too much cynicism in the world today
Grow your knowledge and act with wisdom
The wisdom of the ancient yogic spiritual texts tells us that:
Knowledge (jnana) without Action (karma) is lame – without legs, and Karma (action) without Jnana (knowledge) is blind – without eyes, Wisdom is said to be the combination of action informed by knowledge.
We must strive in our practice to combine the contemplative sciences of meditation (dhyana) and scriptural study (svadhyaya) together with perfect action selflessly undertaken in a balanced and nonviolent way. These perfect actions include what you eat, think, say, or do. Our ability to influence others to be right in the world and to cause a sea-change depends on our knowledge together with our ability to inspire with perfect action – selfless and compassionate. This is the same message that is revealed in the hexagrams of the I Ching. The power of one individual acting with knowledge and selflessness is immense. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Feed the birds.
If not you, then who?
You may feel that what you do does not matter. You may feel that you are insignificant in the larger scheme of things. But that is just shyness which is actually a form of vanity. If not you, then who? There appear to be many individual beings in the world. From a worldly or material point of view this seems to be true. But from a cosmic point of view this is just an illusion (maya) and actually there is just one being, one truth, one consciousness that we all share.
Meditation is the best confidence and consciousness builder. Meditation should be a daily practice. Taking a little time each day to let go of the distractions of mind stuff, news, internet, and work allows you to experience a quiescent and tranquil state. This is the natural state which we lose sight of often in our everyday activities. When we feel situated in this tranquil state and our activities arise out of this state of mind those actions have a different quality and different results than if our action rise from a disturbed mind state that results in actions colored by confusion and selfishness.
Foster a belief in Magic
Can we return to the Yellow Crane Tower? There are actually two Yellow Crane Towers. One exists in a geographical location in Wuhan and is easily returned to again and again. The other one is in our heart. It is a belief in goodness and magic that has been shrouded in confusion, fear, uncertainty and doubt for thousands of years of human history. It is awakened through yoga practices and this awakening is the dawn of a belief and an experience of magic.
Consult traditional oracles that give guidance for better living like the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, and even The Art of War by Sun Tzu because we are revolutionaries for mystery and magic in this time. If those books are difficult for you – start with Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, or His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Do whatever you can to lift the shroud over the heart preventing the return of the Yellow Crane.
The coronavirus is a serious situation and we should follow the advice of the doctors making use of hospitals and immunizations. Government can help us to survive this episode with information and the sequestering of infected individuals. Scientists can help us to discover the causes of the viral spread, but we may discover that at the core the cause is a corrupt human relationship to nature and animals, and that is easy to change.