Odali Utugi–Hope Mountain: A Gathering of Elders

I recently returned from the Elders Gathering at the Sunray Peace Village in Bristol, Vermont. As it says on the Sunray Meditation Society web site, the village “is modeled after places of sanctuary traditional to Cherokee and other Native American nations of the Southeast.  Inspired by the Tsalagi (Cherokee) tradition, the Village is called ‘Odali Utugi’, or Hope Mountain.”  Sunray Meditation Society is “an international society dedicated to planetary peace.”  Native elders have gathered there once a year for 24 years.  I attended this event once back in the mid-90s and was excited to be returning once again almost 20 years later.

The Peace Village is located in a high valley in the Green Mountains.  The remote rural landscape is breathtakingly beautiful.  The mountains rise up gently and create a feeling of being held in a great bowl that opens to the sky above. One feels at once deeply connected to both Mother Earth with one’s head in the stars.

At the entryway to the Village, a fire burned warmly to welcome visitors.  To the left, a stupa–or prayer shrine–sits prominently on a gentle knoll. It reminds visitors of the close connection between the Native American lineage held by Sunray founder and Spiritual Director, Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo and her parallel role as a recognized khandro, or enlightened teacher, in the Tibetan Buddhist Drikung kagyu and Nyingma traditions.  When my friend, Lizette, and I climbed out of our car, there was a palpable sense of welcome, anticipation, and peace in the air.

The Village itself–consisting of many acres of woods and open spaces–is obviously well loved and cared for. Upon entering the central gathering place, there are two buildings–the kitchen and the “temple”–a modest building that houses an inside place for ceremony and meetings in an octagonal shape.  For the Gathering, tents were set up for an outdoor eating and meeting area and a food truck (“Soup, Rock & Roll”), and vendor tents were lined up along the path to the center of the Village where most people camp, meet and play.   Two buildings offering men’s and women’s showers and bathrooms are strategically located near the main camping area.

We decided to camp up in the woods a bit out of the way. We found a wonderful campsite where an ancient, gnarled oak tree stood.  It was wonderful to sleep and dream for five nights on this sacred land.

We headed quickly to the back of the Village to the Ceremonial Arbor where the Elders teaching were already taking place.  I caught my breath when I first saw the  Arbor after 17 years. It is an impressive circular structure built with great logs driven upright into the Earth to form an open-air, natural temple as large as a spacious softball field. The effect of the mighty vertical posts is to orient one towards the sky above even while being keenly aware of one’s feet on the ground.

The outer ring of the Arbor is an area about 10 feet wide over which pine boughs are draped to make a roofed section where participants sit.  The 4 doorways of the cardinal directions–East, South, West, and North–are marked by four 30″ tall posts marked by draped yellow, green, blue, and red cloths and prayer ties marking the Cherokee Medicine Wheel.

A sacred fire pit and a stone shrine grace the very center of the Arbor.  The fire was started at sunrise that morning and burned and tended continuously until the weekend was over.  Lizette and I approached to enter the East Gate as is customary in the Cherokee way. There we were met by a congenial Sunray staff member who offered a shell filled with sweetly smoking sage and cedar. I respectfully and happily drew the smoke towards ourselves from the burning smudge.  It is a practice I have kept for over 20 years to center and still my mind before meditation or ceremony.

While there, I was lucky to hear the teachings of a number of Native American teachers from the Mi’kmaq, Cherokee, Seneca, and Iroquois peoples. What a treat to be in the presence of such wise ones in the sacred space of the Village! We heard many teachings about the old ways of connecting with Mother Earth and all her children–the plants and other friends, as well as about the potential fate of our planet in this time of great change.  Every speaker admonished all of us about the importance of remaining peaceful and remembering our divine interconnection to everything.  There is nothing to fear! Change is good!  We will eventually transition to a world that is more peaceful and in balance.

I also stayed on to take part for one day in the Peacekeeper teachings of Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo.  This is a curriculum developed over the past 20 years to teach the basic principles and practices of peace and community. Her words rang out clearly with messages of the need to recognize our interconnection–not merely as an intellectual idea, but from an understanding that we are inextricably bound through our biological universe and the energetic web that runs throughout all things: “We all drink the same water and are reminded that we are all connected,” she said.  “When men go to war, they are like fisherman.  The women who are left behind hold a mind of transmutation because there is a pool of aggression in our own hearts and in the world.  So we hold the space of non-judgment and are witnesses for peace as a means to temper the extent of the violence.”  Even our thoughts have resonance and therefore, when we choose to hold a thought of peace, we create a ripple effect reaching out beyond our small minds and bodies.

One morning, I went to the Arbor and watched the sun rise up above the eastern gate. It shined like a golden disk. The position of the Lintel of the Arbor, the posts of the gate, and the sun was a powerful reminder of the movement of the Earth and our literally moving relationship to the Sun.  True to the name of the Village, it reminded me to hope always for the return of the light in times of darkness.

We should all be so lucky to live near the Peace Village. I hope someday such places will be everywhere around the world and that peoples of all faiths, cultures, ethnicities, races, and identities will be able to come together to heal and nurture the energies of love.

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