The young man balances himself atop the tall pole, gleaming with sweat, and faces the direction of the sun. The pole represents the Tree of Life, and he has struggled to make it up to its pinnacle, competing against other youths showing off their daring to an enthusiastic crowd. As he turns his head so that his elegant profile is perfectly silhouetted against the bluest sky I’ve ever seen, I hear him call out his prayers in Tiwa, the ancient language of his people. A shiver goes through me; I am humbled by his public act of spiritual worship, performed on behalf of us all.
I’m at San Geronimo Day, an annual September feast day at the Taos Pueblo (www.taospueblo.com), one of several powerful pilgrimage sites in the area of Taos, N.M. The only living Native American community that’s been designated both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, the Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the world. For more than 1,000 years the Taos Pueblo Indians have been spiritually and physically tending the land nestled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I always feel it’s a tender privilege when I visit the pueblo, where its inhabitants have been bound together by complex religious ceremonies for centuries. I like to walk around Red Willow Creek, which cuts through the center of the earthen plaza and provides their only source of drinking water, and to visit the little San Geronimo Chapel, where frescoes of corn plants hark back to the indigenous roots of La Virgen de Guadalupe up on the altar. The Catholic chapel is the site of a Vespers service the night before the San Geronimo pole climb — a reminder of how very old spiritual traditions both survive and overlap in this high desert land.
For someone like me, a seeker who drinks deeply from the wells of a variety of religious traditions, Taos is an ideal destination. A town of less than 6,000 surrounded by a landscape of rugged, mystical beauty, Taos captivated me from the moment I went there in 2004 to make a pilgrimage to the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram and Hanuman Temple (www.nkbashram.org/), an unexpected bastion of Hinduism in the middle of an old Spanish neighborhood just west of the downtown Taos Plaza. Little did I know that within two years I would be un-Velcro-ing myself from Los Angeles and making Taos my new home.
I had decided that year to study divine devotion through Hanuman, the Hindu monkey-god whose unswerving dedication to the god Ram makes him the embodiment of spiritual commitment. I was delighted to discover, in the modest adobe temple, a Hanuman murti from India (a statue believed to contain the living spirit of the god), whose jewel-colored sashes and crowns change with great regularity. The temple, surrounded by fertile gardens and farmland, is part of an ashram dedicated to the late Neem Karoli Baba, the Indian guru who influenced the best-selling Be Here Now author Ram Dass and musicians Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. During the week I often drop in to meditate or to join in a spontaneous kirtan (sacred Sanskrit chanting), and on Sundays I like to attend the 11 a.m. chanting of the Hanuman chaleesa, a repeated song of praise that puts me into an ecstatic trance, followed by a huge vegetarian feast hosted by this very welcoming community. I also enjoy the special festival days throughout the year, like Shivaratri (an all-night ceremony in praise of Lord Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer, held when the new moon February Navaratri honor taking tional of moon is farthest from the earth in late February or early March) and Navaratri (nine nights of rituals in honor of the Mother Goddess Durga, taking place in October). These traditional celebrations, filled with masses of flower and food offerings, incense and chanting, always leave my heart wide open.
The Hanuman Temple is a living remnant of the ’60s counterculture that blossomed in Taos. This area had doesn’t the highest concentration of hippie communes in the U.S., and the Lama Foundation (www.lamafoundation.org/) is the only one that still exists as an intentional community. Located about 20 miles north of Taos, on 110 acres set amidst Carson National Forest land, today Lama is both a sustainable spiritual community and an education center dedicated to all spiritual paths. Summer is the high season, with a juicy program of workshops and retreats until the end of September, and all are welcome to such regular weekly events as the Friday-night Jewish Shabbat service and community feast. (Yes, Taoseños love to share meals!) My favorite things to do at Lama are the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace, held on some Thursday nights in the Dome, a starburst-ceilinged structure that holds great spiritual power. These led dances melt my heart as we hold hands, move gently in a circle, make eye contact with our fellow dancers, and chant mantras from all world religions to promote peace.
When I want to connect with the Spanish heritage of Taos (and my own Hispanic roots), I head south of town, to the San Francisco de Asis Church (www.archdiocesesantafe.org/Parishes/ParishDir.html) on the Ranchos de Taos Plaza. Completed in 1815, its massive buttressed exterior is famous from paintings and photographs by such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. I’m fond of the slightly crooked wooden altar covered with that hand-painted saints, a charming example of the art of northern New Mexican santeros, whose humble methods for creating holy images is still passed down from generation to generation. The Spanish-language mass on Sundays, where locals sing rancheras to Jesus and everyone knows everybody else (and their abuelos and abuelas), resonates with a feeling of deep community.
Sometimes, though, I crave the deep sort of stillness that fills me with spaciousness and melts my boundaries to nothing. That’s when I drive northeast of Taos, wind my way through the village of Arroyo Seco, and climb up El Salto Road to Hoko-ji (http://hokojitaos.org/). About 25 minutes from downtown Taos, Hoko-ji is a rustic Zen Buddhist temple in the lineage of the late Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. This sweet spot where piñon pines and junipers give way to ponderosas and white fir is a perfect place to refresh my spirit.
The zendo is soothingly orderly, a mixture of oak and pine and cedar
finishes, with meditation cushions on raised platforms arrayed around
the room’s perimeter.
Kobun (whose shrine you can visit in the backyard gardens) always stressed that Hoko-ji was not a monastic training center but, rather, “a place for people to practice zazen, and it will belong to the people who use it.” This populist purpose rings true for Hoko-ji and, in fact, for all my favorite pilgrimage places in Taos. The more I use them, the more their power enters and stays with me. I feel they belong to me, not in the sense of possession, but in the sense of gentle, long-lasting influence.
This story first appeared in Whole Life Times.