Almost 17 years ago, I met the Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo at her Peace Village in Bristol, Vermont. I have told the story before about how I thought I was going to her retreat because of my interest in Buddhism, but instead I was captured by the magic of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) teachings. I stayed under her direct tutelage for 3 years and then left to pursue my own healing and path.
Recently, because of the Peace is the Human Way project, I have been back in touch to solicit Venerable Dhyani’s support as an Advisory Board member and to include her wealth of untranscribed teachings in the website. I am leaving next week to attend the Elders Gathering at the Sunray Peace Village and will meet her in person for the first time in 15 years. Therefore, I was excited when notice came of the release of her new book, Learning Cherokee Ways: The Ywahoo Path. I ordered it immediately, eager to once again explore the rich teachings of the Ywahoo lineage and to learn more about Venerable Dhyani’s personal story of how she was raised by her wise elders. Venerable Dhyani says that many of her students have asked how her culture and upbringing impacted who she is and what she teaches. Learning Cherokee Ways is her response.
Learning Cherokee Ways, simply put, is magical. I cannot say enough about how it stands out among the spiritual memoirs and teaching texts of Native American teachers and healers. Venerable Dhyani captures with crystalline clarity, mesmerizing storytelling, and beautiful imagery the way her people lived in delicate balance between and with both visible and invisible worlds and then how they managed to preserve this precious knowledge through attempts by the United States government to wipe out and assimilate all Indians.
Learning Cherokee Ways complements her first book published in 1987, Voices of the Ancestors. The latter book is primarily a teaching text that weaves in complex, poetic language and imagery a vision of how each of us can access the wisdom light within and create a world of beauty and peace for all. Most of us would not read it cover to cover, but would rather turn to it as one would a collection of brilliant, insightful and inspirational lectures on spiritual life and practice. Voices, in fact, reminds me of the writings on the nonviolence, love, spirituality, and peace of M. K. Gandhi and M. L. King, Jr.
Learning Cherokee ways is written in a simpler and accessible style with spiritual teachings and principles anchored in Venerable Dhyani’s personal story and reminiscences. We get to see in more detail how the Ywahoo lineage fits into both Cherokee and Native history and culture through snapshots of her training and daily life. Her ancestors were forced to run and hide in the face of the United States government’s attempts to exterminate the Native peoples. She explains through stories of her parents, grandparents, sister, and other extended family, how they nevertheless managed to retain the integrity of their true and authentic selves.
I was struck by the dramatic differences between how they were perceived and forced to live in the new world versus the ancient and beautiful Tsalagi values of gentleness, sensitivity, and respect for the earth and all beings. This struggle for survival under the pressure of assimilation versus preservation of a deeply mystical, spiritual lifeway antithetical to the dominant society is shown through Venerable Dhyani’s narrative of how she herself struggled with the teachings.
She was pressed by her elders to develop her skills of seeing and reading subtle energies, tapping into the clearest streams of consciousness in the world around her:
“When we were young, sometimes my sister Pamela and I would be taken far into the woods, left alone, and told to find our way home. This was a lesson to learn to trust and rely on our own senses….Once I was left alone, not too far from my Grandparent’s home, and I was to listen to the sounds of certain plants. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a rare and strange plant that grows three feet tall. It has a sound and is shaped like a cup or an iron and insects are drawn into it and then, digested. It is a very intelligent plant. On this occasion, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit called me to come and observe it.”
We see her elders and teachers through her own eyes and are impressed, as she is, by their comportment, integrity and wisdom: “My Great-Great-grandfather was tall, straight, thin, sinewy man….His skin was like gold ivory…He had a lot to say in simple gestures and few words. He conveyed a regal quality and people from all over the world came to visit him.”
Learning Cherokee Ways would be very accessible to a reader unfamiliar with Venerable Dhyani’s work and who were interested in beginning to explore Native spirituality, in general. Each chapter discusses an aspect of the Ywahoo path and history first through her own experience as a child. Then she offers deeper insight into the teachings and provides an “enhancement activity”–a ritual, meditation or practice–to anchor them into the reader’s personal life. In this way, the book mirrors the Native way of using storytelling as a teaching text and then asks the listener to put the lessons into practice.
For instance, in Chapter One, Venerable Dhyani talks about the teaching of the Luminous One–a being who “was born in a miraculous way to a young girl who was an orphan.” This boy grew up to be a great teacher to his people about “how to live in harmony with the fundamental truths of creation and instructed them how to maintain, in most pure mind, sacred rituals and relationship.” She then describes his appearances in her life as she grew up in region of what is now South Carolina:
“The Luminous One was a tangible experience in my life and as a child, like so many children, my insight enables me to see [him]. The Luminous One appeared to me as a pillar of light and became apparent as we said prayers for the benefit of others or offered prayers of appreciation for the food on the table. Sometimes, he appeared as a very handsome, young Indian man and other times as an old man. Once I was playing with a child who appeared and then disappeared….When looking into his shining black eyes, it was like looking into deep space. His eyes actually sparkled and were the most incredible black eyes once could every imagine, radiating a vast intelligence and compassion.”
As Venerable Dhyani tell us, the Luminous One “rekindled the sacred fires and reaffirmed to the people the basic principles of creation so the temples might ever resound with the light of clear mind and the instructions of people to live in harmony with the earth and one another.” She further states that his energy resonates for her in the same way as some of the great enlightened beings and mystics “expressed through Guru Padmasambhava, His Holiness the Dudjom Rinpoche, and in the eyes of Anandamayi, a female mystic from India….It is a consciousness that includes everyone, yet is not confined to a single person. In this way, I have directly experienced others who look and feel like the Luminous One.” Her discussion of these visions and the elders’ confirmation of them draws us into this mysterious, numinous world in which we are challenged to let go of surface appearances to embrace the truth and magic of the true mystic whose sightedness illumines other dimensions of existence infused with divine love.
In the first chapter, Venerable Dhyani continues to lay out the basic principles and goals of the Luminous One’s–or Peacemaker’s–teachings: The Seven Reminders and the Nine Precepts. The Seven Reminders are “points of reference” for how an individual should view her relationship to the Sacred Hoop–the community of life. This includes such commandments as “generosity of heart and action,” “respect for elders, clan and nation,” and “pacifying conflicting emotions,” among others. The Nine Precepts read much like the 10 Commandments, for instance: “Speak only words of truth” and “Honor the light in all.” The enhancement activities suggest that the reader pick one of the Seven Reminders for each day of the week and “carry it throughout the day,” including doing such things as journaling on the “thoughts, experiences and reflections that arise.”
As a lifelong Buddhist practitioner myself, I see much in common between the two wisdom streams. Like the Hopi, Venerable Dhyani’s father and grandparents prophesied that Tibetan Buddhists and Native Americans would meet and recognize the similarities in their spiritual worldviews and precepts. One of the Seven Reminders sounds very much like the wording one might find in a Buddhist teaching text: “principles of awakened mind guide enlightened action.” The emphasis in the Ywahoo teachings on the central importance of clarifying one’s mind of conflicted thoughts and feelings in order to see deeply into the true nature of things is very much like Buddhist approaches. Her teachings of the understanding the formation and nature of consciousness is also central to Buddhism: “There are dimensions of consciousness that are extensive and relate not only to our personal ideation, but show us how the ‘I’ arises through the interconnection of thought and action.”
There are also similarities between Venerable’s lineage and what is known as Central or South American shamanism, in particular from Peru. Venerable Dhyani tells it that when she was growing up, her elders told her that many of their teachings came from “the South.” The practice of the Medicine Wheel Mandala discussed in the book is very similar to the Peruvian practice. “The Medicine Wheel Mandala trains the mind to recognize how our view determines the outcome in our lives and how by changing our view, we can correct whatever needs balance.”
In Venerable’s grandfather’s use of stone and cornmeal, the the healing mesa are mirrored: “He would place colored, ground stones and different colored cornmeal to show designs that became gateways into many realms….They were not flat but multidimensional. Somehow, these shapes now sang in my bones, blood and every cell of my body…. saw the different robes I wore and bodies lent to me for a time. I glimpsed the woman I would become and the many generations that would pass through me.”
If we are unused to the idea that we live in a multidimensional world in which there are visible and invisible layers, magical beings, and the ability to communicate directly with plants, animals, mountains, rivers, and streams, among other so-called “inanimate” objects, Learning Cherokee Ways might be a stretch to read. Yet Venerable Dhyani’s straightforward and simple way of telling us about her own childhood and ongoing discovery of these magical dimensions of the universe and our innate human ability to access them might open up even the most closed mind and heart to the possibility that there is more than our concrete, physically-bound ego-consciousness and this world filled with suffering. Certainly, the Tsalagi way of holding all of creation in deep respect and caring is inspiring and beautiful. If the reader takes away simply that, then Venerable Dhyani has accomplished a great deal. As she says, “May the resolution of your apparent ignorance resolve into compassionate action as conceptual attachments are offered to the fire so that all beings may recall their awakened wisdom state.” May it be so.