The World Tree and Vertical Time
Posted 23-Sept: 2012
by Bill Scheffel
Yggdrasil, a modern reconstruction of the Norse
world-tree (image in public domain).
The illustration above is a modern depiction of Yggdrasil, a Norse version of the "world-tree," a developmental and archetypal map that variously shows the origins of creation as well as systems of interdependence. The world- tree appears in many cultures and is probably best known in Western modernity through the cabalistic tree of life. I don't know what the particular details - the mountain, the rainbow, the little cabin or the paths - of Yggdrasil means, but the image is immediately compelling to me, and I feel such affection for it. Seeing it is to be empowered with a sense of the coherence of life and the spiritual developmental processes available to us.
If we take a conscious posture of standing, at some point I think we will naturally or invariably associate ourselves with a tree. Our feet take on the quality of roots, the subtle energy that is always flowing between us and the ground below us, and from the ground below up into us. Our legs become trunks that support our upper body. Our arms, if we raise them above our head so resembles branches... that the dralas, like birds, begin to land in them.
Interestingly, to create an imaginary relationship between ourselves and a tree is the opposite of making up a story. The imagination, in its true sense, is not a source of fantasy but an organ, a vehicle which senses what our sense organs, "alone," cannot (see footnote 1 below). The made-up story is our discursive thoughts of worries and mental occupation. The drala reality is available to us in the most immediate and even simplistic ways, whereas too much knowledge - even spiritual knowledge - prevents our access to it. All knowledge circulates in our mental process, whereas the non-conceptual wisdom or God circulates along the margins and peripheries of all that, in the disturbances, in the bardo-islands, in our dreaming, in the gaps and unobstructed space. It undoubtedly circulates in the branches of the trees.
I landed in Bangkok airport in 2004, my first trip to Asia. As soon as my feet touched the airport floor I felt a sense of relief. My body felt invited to be less armored in a culture that felt so much more... feminine. Among the countless sights, smells and sounds of Bangkok that intrigued me were the trees. Trees that had shrines in them - or I should say, by so indicating had been thus honored for what they already were. Though some trees housed elaborate shrines, virtual doll-houses filled with Buddhas, dancing devis, flower-petal strands and open bottles of soda pop, it was equally common to see a tree wrapped with several yards of silk around its trunk - an indication not just of respect and veneration but also, as I later learned, an attempt to protect the tree from developers.
The world-tree is an expression of anima-mundi or world-soul. VTY is an expression of some of the basic principles for connecting with world-soul. It seems we must begin making literal expressions to the part of the world that is invisible to us, the dralas. We must literally talk to them, assuming if we must the somewhat awkard voice that we sometimes use when talking to a child or an elderly person. Just as this form of communication could begin by wrapping silk around a tree, an even more immediate and potent expression is to begin talking to the tree. If nothing else, when walking past a tree at least say, Hello.
1. Chgyam Trungpa outlined this aspect of "invoking drala," and much more, in a seminar he gave in 1981; for those who have it, see 1981 Kalapa Assemply, talks one through three, especially three.
Tree, wrapped and with spotlight, Bangkok.
Tree with shrine, Bangkok