Visiting the mytheme of the World Turtle, supporting the earth on her back

Some weeks ago while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, I came upon one of the many green turtles we would encounter throughout our days of diving. Only a fortnight before, the last of the turtle eggs had hatched on a sand island, and there were many adult females swimming around. 

Following one as it glided effortlessly through the crystalline water, I had the strongest sense that the turtle before me was none other than Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, my ancestral Zen teacher who died fifty years ago.

It was a bizarre, non-sequitur impression, and I am completely without explanation of how I came to it. Was it because I had recently heard from a friend that Yoda, the grand-master Jedi from Star Wars, was based on Yasutani—language, ears and all?

No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try … to be Jedi is to face the truth and choose.
Give off light or darkness, Padawan. Be a candle or the night.

Or perhaps the name “Yasutani” was embedded in my psyche because author Ruth Ozeki used this same family name for her protagonist in her book, A Tale for the Time Being:

Hi! My name is Nao (Yasutani), and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

Turtles All the Way Down

I do know that turtles are a big deal in ancient Buddhist lore. Samantabhadra—“Universal Good”—who with Shakyamuni and Manjusri form the Mahayana triad, traditionally rides a white elephant. And that elephant is sometimes shown standing on the back of a turtle. What is the turtle standing on, you may ask? Well, we all know it is turtles all the way down.

The World Turtle, which holds up the whole universe, is a surprisingly common “mytheme” across many cultures. It is found in the Vedic hymns, in Chinese origin stories, and the belief in some Native American tribes that  all life on earth rests on the back of a turtle. The earth is Turtle Island.

I described this note to my daughter this morning, and she responded, “Hmm, it sounds complicated…” which made me laugh. I can’t explain why Yasutani Roshi was swimming through the Coral Sea one recent bright afternoon. But I like to think it had something to do with holding up the world. That makes me feel hopeful for this island.

Manzanita, by Gary Snyder

Before dawn the coyotes
weave medicine songs
dream nets – spirit baskets –
milky way music
they cook young girls with
to be woman;
or the whirling dance of
striped boys –

At moon-set the pines are gold-purple
Just before sunrise.

The dog hastens into the undergrowth
Comes back panting
Huge, on the small dry flowers.

A woodpecker
Drums and echoes
Across the still meadow

One man draws, and releases     an arrow
Humming, flat,
Misses a gray stump, and splitting
A smooth red twisty manzanita bough.

Manzanita     the tips in fruit,
Clusters of hard green berries
The longer you look
The bigger they seem,

     `little apples’