Tuesday, October 5, 2010


If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.
--Pema Chödrön    

Today is October 5th, and that, my friends, is one of the three days in the Roman Calendar marking the ritual of the Mundus Patet--the “opening of the world.” (The other two days are August 24--the birthday of both this blog and yours truly--and November 8.) Each year on these holidays, at the Palatine Hill at the center of the city of Rome, priests moved a large stone called the lapis manalis off a sacred chamber (shown above) believed to be the entrance to the Underworld, unleashing the spirits of the dead. This seemed an appropriate occasion to offer a contemplation on the virtue of Openness.

As with Kiku no Sekku, the Japanese holiday that we visited back on September 9, the Mundus Patet also relates to the harvest season. The Romans’ forebears, the Etruscans, would store fruits of the harvest, as well as seed-grain, in a pit dug in the earth and covered with a stone. Classicist Warde Fowler believed that the opening of the chamber correlated with important harvest festivals during which grain was stored or seed-grain taken out for the sowing of winter wheat.

As the more urban culture of the Romans displaced the Etruscans, the agricultural association of the ritual waned. Since the Goddess Ceres presided over both agriculture as well as the Underworld, the ritual came to represent not the storage and release of grain, but of ghosts. On the days of Mundus Patet, Romans conducted no public business, fought no battles, sailed no ships, and performed no wedding ceremonies. Rather than celebrating the joy and feasting of the harvest, and the hopes of future plantings, the citizens walked the streets with dread,  wearing herbal charms for protection from the dead.

Thinking about the Mundus Patet reminded me of the teachings of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who describes the entire goal of spiritual practice as maintaining a state of Openness, open heart and open mind. In an interview with poet bell hooks about prejudice and the meditation practice of tonglen, for example, she says:

It's a difficult and challenging practice to keep your heart and mind open.... But when you see, bell, how you feel towards [some] people, you can begin to understand why there is racism, why there is cruelty, because everyone has those same thoughts and emotions that you do... Openness actually starts to emerge when you see how you close down. You see how you close down, how you yell at someone, and you begin to have some compassion. It starts with compassion towards yourself and then you begin to extend that warmth to the rest of humanity. It begins to dawn on you how it could happen that people are yelling at others because they're oriental or black or hispanic or women or gay or whatever. You begin to know what it's like to stand in their shoes.

Later in the same interview, Pema describes Openness as being in touch with the Infinite Divine: “On one level, our suffering is caused by bigotry and dogmatism and all these things, but ultimately we suffer because we don't understand how limitless we are.” (This reminds me of Thorn Coyle’s teachings on connecting with the Divine, as exemplified by the title of her second work, Kissing the Limitless.)

A Buddhist parable that for me further resonates with the Mundus Patet involves Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddhist saint. Once upon a time, Milarepa retreated to meditate in a dark cave carved into the hillside of the Red Rock Jewel Valley (rather like the pit in the Palatine Hill). One day he returned to the cave only to find five fearsome demons there. After hours of torture grappling with them, Milarepa finally announced, “Ye ghosts and demons, enemies of the Dharma, I welcome you today! It is my pleasure to receive you!...We will discourse and play together.” In a commentary by Judith Simmer-Brown, she notes that Milarepa acknowledged

that the demons, and all phenomena for that matter, were of his own mind, which is of the nature of luminosity and emptiness. The demons were his own projections, and seeing them naively as external demons served as an obstacle to his practice. At the same time, their malicious nature was actually radiant and transparent, no different from awakening itself. If he could respond to them appropriately, he could reap great spiritual benefit.

Milarepa realized that the chamber did not hold ghosts or demons, but rather the seeds of his own Enlightenment. He went on to unleash his own Buddha nature.  

Learning meditation practices like tonglen gives us a metaphoric form of the Mundus Patet. When we allow ourselves to face the spectres of our own nature that frighten us so badly, that is Openness. Opening the gate does not release the demons; rather, it is by facing our dark shadows that we Open the Mundus, the “world” of ourselves. Once we crack ourselves Open, we find within the pit not the menacing shades of our Underworld, but rather the seed-grains of our own potential, our Limitless nature.

So, today, on a ritual of Opening the World, consider how facing your own frightening internal specters may offer you a chance to harvest great spritual fruits. As we shove aside the rock of our own small and frightened natures, we attain our state of Openness.

May we see the gates of Openness, and perhaps make a home there.

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