Fernando Urbina Rangel is a philosopher, poet, photographer, and educator. For decades he has worked at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia where he has conducted classes, seminars and research regarding comparative mythology, orality, rock art, Amazonian petroglyphs, and ceremonial plants. Urbina has authored ninety-five academic articles, eight books, twenty-five individual photography exhibits, two educational television series, and two radio series. Today, books such as Las hojas del poder (Leaves of Power)(1992), Dïïjoma, El hombre serpiente águila (The Serpent Eagle Man) (2004) have become classics in Amazonian literature. Sown with mambe (coca powder mixed with yarumo ashes) and ambil (tobacco paste mixed with vegetal salt), and based in the art of picto-poetry, rock painting, and rafue (powerful speech for the Murui-Muina) these works were visionary publications that wove image, poetry, essay, and ancient stories, destabilizing the urban word-centered hierarchies of Colombian universities. In Urbina’s work, the book is the coca tree, the elders Don José García y Doña Filomena Tejada are the library, and the university is the ritual dances and the mambeadero (the place where men sit to share mambe and words). Fernando Urbina speaks with La Gente de Centro, the People from the Center (Múrui, Okaina, Nonuya, Bora, Miraña, Muinane, Resígaro and Andoque), children of the tobacco, the coca, the sweet yuca, whose original territory is found in the interfluvial Caquetá-Putumayo region (Colombia). These people have survived the Casa Arana genocide and continue to resist the siege of the petroleum industry, mining companies, narcotraffickers and Colombian Civil War.
Fortunately, the vitality with which Fernando Urbina’s books retrieve the word, gesture, and rites of the Gente de Centro, and celebrate them in philosophy, poetry and art, has cleared pathways for the textualities and oralitures of Abiayala’s peoples. His interdisciplinary work recalls that for many generations on the Caqueta river, and still today, there are stone-books beneath the water, petroglyphs that emerge when the floodwaters recede to tell the original stories. His work also recognizes that “myth is the word revealed”, neither chimera nor anachronism, but instead, the present that sustains us and “in which one must suspend and linger”(Las hojas del poder).
The photographs and texts that make up the video below are part of Urbina’s work, MÁS ALLÁ DE LAS MONTAÑAS DE UYUMBE (BEYOND the MOUNTAINS of UYUMBE)(“San Agustín”), sponsored and exhibited by ICANH in 2019 (Universidad Nacional) during the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Konrad Theodor Preuss, the founder of scientific archaeology in Colombia. This exhibition was based upon the notions of Preuss, the German linguist, archeologist and ethnographer, who proposed a study of religion and mythology of the Murui-Muina in search of keys with which to interpret the culture of San Agustín (Alto Magdalena). The exposition signals the Andean-Amazonian confluences between the ancient cultures of the high and low regions. It is worth noting that the Caqueta River’s headquarters are less than 100 Km away from the Magdalena River Basin in the Almaguer Knot (Colombian Macizo), the spot where the Andes divides into three mountain ranges.
The following excerpts were selected from the exhibition, BEYOND the MOUNTAINS of UYUMBE)(“San Agustín”). Established in the paradoxical language of the ancient stories of the Gente de Centro, Urbina finds a technique to weave his own basket: the synthesis (Serpiente-Águila, Vigilia-Ensueño, Anaconda-Espiral)(Serpent-Eagle, Vigil-Dream, Anaconda-Spiral) Because of this, the reader of these vignettes will note that nouns appear insufficient, and that the use of the hyphen or capital letter is a strategy to emphasize mutuality. In this poetic imaginary, no word (i.e. emptiness, point, firmness) has only one meaning, because each word is what it is and also the opposite: the creator is the created and vice versa, and whoever owns silence also owns speech.
Aracuara Canyon from The-Balcony-of-the-Stone Witch
Everything was there and seemed complete
but no… nothing had a name nor a history
it wasn’t even the stuff of nostalgia
When the primordial arrived
—climbing the rivers
from the shores of the immense sea
it marked the place and made it the world,
multiplied it into myth.
recreated it into ritual
donned it with the one hundred faces of remembrance.
Lorrie Jayne, a collaborator in Siwar Mayu, teaches Spanish, Portuguese, and Personal Narrative in the Languages and Literatures Department at University of North Carolina Asheville (USA). She lives with her husband and daughters in the Appalachian Mountains where she enjoys plants, people, and poetry.
Translation from Japanese and Spanish into English by Yaxkin Melchy
Copy-editing by Sophie Lavoie
Translation from Spanish to Japanese by Chizuko Osato 大里千津子 and Mitsuko Ando 安藤美津子 with revision by Yasuko Sagara 相良泰子
Japanese version below ↴
Interview with Tokūn Tanaka, head monk of the Dōkeiji 同慶 寺 zen temple in the town of Minami Soma in Fukushima, Japan, and Pedro Favaron, poet, researcher, and medicine man of the Nishi Nete clinic in the Indigenous community of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha in the Peruvian Amazon. The photographs were taken in Minami Soma, Fukushima, and in the Indigenous community of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha, Ucayali, Peru.
South: Pedro Favaron, Santa Clara Yarinacocha Native Community, Ucayali, Perú
Yaxkin: Please introduce yourself
Pedro: I am a humble man on earth, who tries to keep a healthy body, a well-formed and active mind (simple and without entanglements), and a sincere heart. I was born in the city of Lima, the capital of Peru and, since I was a child, I felt the necessity to return to the earth. Also, from very early on, I sensed that Indigenous people kept a fundamental knowledge for reconnecting with the sacred network of life. My dearest moments during my childhood and adolescence were when I swam in the Pacific Ocean and when I walked its beaches at night during our family trips to the Andean desert and coastal valleys. Although I was lucky enough to get a Ph.D.-level academic education at the University of Montreal in Canada, my soul still thirsted for something that mere intellectual education could not give me. That is to say that I have no complaints about academic education in itself (except, of course, about the primacy of materialist positivism); but, in my understanding, current universities cannot meet the genuine necessities of our self-being. So, when I finished my studies, I came to live in the Amazon and married Chonon Bensho, a wise and beautiful woman artist from the Shipibo-Konibo people. She is a descendant of medicine men and women (Meraya) who, for many generations, have maintained the links between our world, the spiritual Owners of medicine and the ancestors. I have been able to learn at least a little of that ancestral knowledge and the spiritual connection that my wife’s grandfather (Ranin Bima) carefully preserved. My entire being has been renewed through the perfume of medicinal plants and the radiance of the Jakon Nete (the pure land, devoid of evil). Despite being a person of this time and experiencing, like the rest of society, the antinomies of modernity and the prevalence of cybernetic logic, I try to live in harmony between heaven and earth. It is from this harmony that we receive patients who ask for our help with humility and whom we attend to in the traditional way. Likewise, maintaining a dialogue with the forests and with the sacred network of life, I write poems, narratives, essays, and academic papers. I also make videos and films, trying to make a contribution to the world, sharing beauty and clarity to help these times marked by violence and confusion.
Yaxkin: Since you began to live in Yarinacocha, what is the current situation in the Peruvian Amazon?
Pedro: The lifestyle of the ancients has permanently disappeared from this world. There is no turning back. The media and new technologies have a profound impact on our lifestyles, on our aspirations, and colonize the unconscious of young people. Indigenous languages are being lost and with them all their sensitivity: their intimate relationship with the territory, and the knowledge implicit in the language. On the other hand, deforestation and excessive depredation of lakes and rivers continue to advance, as well as violence. This is a point worth mentioning, since both assaults with weapons and house robberies have grown worryingly, in time with the rage in people’s hearts and witchcraft. People do not want to make the sacrifices that the ancients made to purify their hearts and learn how to bond themselves with the spiritual Owners of medicine and the Jakon Nete in the ancient way. Formerly, the few people who followed the ancients’ initiation paths did so to help their families and protect them. Now, on the contrary, the knowledge of plants is learned only for business, to give visionary plants to drink to foreigners, thus likening our sacred medicines to any other drug. When one wants to learn motivated by selfish desires, that person will twist their way and only learn the negative, thus becoming an antisocial person who fosters disunity. In the heart of the medicine man, generosity and spirit of service must prevail. If one starts in the traditional way, it is still possible to bond with the Jakon Nete. The world of the ancients has disappeared from this existential dimension in which we live, but it still lives in a parallel time-space to ours. If we keep our hearts pure, its light will awaken in us and it will give us strength and wisdom.
Yaxkin: In your vision, what will be the challenges for the community of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha in the coming years?
Pedro: I believe that the greatest challenge of Indigenous families, in general, is how to survive while maintaining our cultural and spiritual differences, in the midst of the overwhelming homogenizing trend of globalism that wants us all the same, consuming the same, thinking the same, and wishing the same, disconnected from our own being and from the soul of the world. Is it possible for Indigenous peoples to participate in the market economy in a differentiated way, without losing their ancestral knowledge, their art, their language, and, above all, by preserving a harmonious relationship with the sacred web of life? I see that this is a major challenge, very difficult, but not impossible. I believe that this cannot be achieved if Indigenous peoples do not obtain a solid academic education. The problem is that almost all modern education is being used to eradicate peoples’ cultures and to discipline students so that they become functional to a system of exploitation of other human beings, and the rest of the living beings. It would be necessary to open up academic spaces: new technologies, modern sciences, and ancestral knowledge could be put into dialogue on equal terms, focusing on love and compassion towards human beings, the earth, and the rest of the sentient beings. I see, however, that, at the moment, the Yarinacocha region is very far from this possibility and that makes my heart grieve; however, I do not consider it entirely healthy to cling to that sadness, but rather we must look to the future with hope. Despite all the challenges and threats that stand against life in this time, there are also many people, from different cultures, who want to learn ancestral knowledge, and to seek more harmonious and beautiful ways of inhabiting the earth. What gives meaning to our lives is the service we provide to others. The light of wisdom shines for all those who sincerely seek to change their lives and heal their wounds, for people who work for the good of the sacred web of life.
Yaxkin: How could the spiritual vision of the peoples of East Asia enrich native communities and the mestizo Peruvian society?
Pedro: I have always sensed that there is an intimate relationship between the Andean-Amazonian cultures and the East Asian ones. In particular, in Peru, we had Japanese and Chinese migrations that were integrated into local cultures and whose contributions are evident in many ways (starting with cuisine). I feel that there is a kind of resonance and continuity. However, without being conscious and explicit about it, we cannot fully benefit from that relationship and what the spiritual traditions of the East Asian people have to teach us. I believe, for example, that the basic notions of Taoism are very close to the ancestral Amazonian sensibility: they seek humility, allying oneself with the movements of the cycles of nature without opposition, contemplation, and distancing from the National State. The Confucian ethic, on the other hand, that promotes selfless service to the State is quite absent in the Amazon (where nations without a State have prospered), although it is possible that something similar existed in the ancient Tawantinsuyo of the Inkas. Likewise, I believe that Chan and Zen Buddhism, with the emphasis on the return to our original condition, and understanding “satori” (comprehension) as an awakening to our inner truth, are close to the indigenous understanding of personal realization called “meraya.” The Buddhist emphasis on compassion and generosity is very close to our ancestral ethics: legitimate human beings (known as “jonikon” in the Shipibo language) should not be dominated by selfish desires, appetites, envy, or jealousy, but by a vocation of service and self-sacrifice in favor of their network of relatives and loved ones. At the same time, the Shinto’s understanding of nature’s spirits is really close to ours. My wife and I have a fondness for Studio Ghibli’s animations; we really like the intersection between modern and ancient Japan. I believe that this helps us to truly imagine our Amazonian modernity, one that can embrace the best of science and technology without losing its cultural and spiritual roots. Even Japanese painting and poetry are close to our sensibility. I think it would be very enriching to engage in a cultural, intellectual, and spiritual dialogue that does not need to be filtered through Eurocentric scholarship but rather can take place sincerely in an atmosphere of trust and understanding.
Yaxkin: Do you believe in Mother Earth? For you, what is Mother Earth, and from the point of view of the Shipibo-Konibo spirituality, how can we approach her?
Pedro: It is evident that the Earth behaves like a mother: her atmosphere embraces us like the uterine waters, she sustains and feeds us generously. In the same way, the Sun behaves like a father, who lights our way and fertilizes the Earth, making life possible. It is good to humbly acknowledge our debt to the founding elements of existence and our participation in the sacred web of life. We know, from the teachings of our ancestors, that all living beings, plants, trees, birds, the sun, mountains, stones, and rivers, have their own form of language, consciousness and spiritual life. The Great Spirit’s breath dwells in them and animates them. According to ancient narratives, in the past, all living beings shared the same original condition; therefore, we are all related and nothing is completely unrelated. Living beings participate in a sacred network and we complement each other. Humans cannot survive on their own, we depend on others. Therefore, we do not have the right to impose our whims or abuses on others, to the point of putting the continuity of life on the planet at risk. Health, in a holistic and comprehensive sense, requires us to live in harmony with the rest of living beings.
Yaxkin: How can we reconcile with Mother Earth?
Pedro: First, I think that we need to return to more austere lifestyles closer to land and plants. If one wants to reconcile with our mother earth, we have to slow down our worries and busy schedules, purify ourselves and return to the contemplative temporality of trees. We have to clean our retinas and recover our amazement by sailing the rivers in a canoe and walking under the green shade of the forests. In order to dialogue with the rest of living beings and experience unity with the sacred web of life, we must preserve ourselves in certain purity: eating healthily and lightly, renouncing the excesses of lust and selfish pleasures, breathing calmly, preserving the innocence of our heart, loving other beings, and letting our inner light to emerge. Our grandparents taught us precise words to converse with the rest of living beings. Our medicinal songs are like perfumed flowers that descend from the Jakon Nete to bless our world, calm sadness, and brighten hearts. Furthermore, I’m deeply convinced that the prayers of aints and sages are like invisible pillars preventing heaven and earth from mixing chaotically. We must preserve the balance and links between the visible world and the spiritual one. Human beings can only fully realize themselves if they receive strength, help, and wisdom from Master Spirits and the sages of the past.
Yaxkin: What is the role of poetry, songs, and arts in this reconciliation?
Pedro: The ancient Meraya were sages who healed patients with their medicinal chants. In other words, they were medicine-poets who healed with the vibrations of their voice. The suprasensible healing force comes down from the spiritual worlds and takes shape in the voice of the healer. This is a sacred poetry that purifies the body and mind, driving away evil spirits and fighting against witchcraft, restoring lost balance, and brightening the heart. We have been able to learn just a little about that heritage by continuing to practice it. These medicinal songs inspire the rest of our artistic practices. My wife and I believe in an art that, nourished by ancestral knowledge, territory, and the spiritual worlds, contributes to beautifying the planet, participates in the cosmic balance, and reminds us of having a good coexistence with the rest of the beings, showing us how to inhabit the earth in a beautiful, wise, and prudent way. I believe that at this time, when mental illnesses and the loss of our own humanity (under the primacy of cybernetics) are proliferating, art should lift us up and give us tranquility, love, compassion, and remind us about our own hearts. People are increasingly disconnected from themselves, from other beings, and from the sacred; our art seeks to be a medicine for these diseases and aims to provide relief to suffering.
Yaxkin: Please share your vision with a phrase or poem.
I spend my days
in a shelter
in the mountain
the liquid song
of the wild bird
and the deep and quiet
of the plants.
under a tree
by the creek
in the waters
that neither hurriedly
run down into the big river.
the world would be
if my brothers
to the sweet rumor
of the creek
at the base
of the heart.
East: Tokūn Tanaka（田中徳雲）
Yaxkin: Please introduce yourself
Tokūn: I am a monk in charge of a Buddhist temple in the city of Minami Soma in Fukushima prefecture. When I was in high school, I became interested in reading books about ancient Buddhist monks and began to study Buddhism. Since 2001, I have been living in this temple, dedicating myself to the practices that are part of our everyday life. Ten years ago, in this emblematic temple of our region, famous for its agriculture, fishing, and rich nature, everything changed enormously due to the accident at the nuclear power plant. My temple is located 17 kilometers northwest of this nuclear power plant [Fukushima Daiichi].
Yaxkin: Now, ten years after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of 2011, what is the situation in Minami Soma, Fukushima?
Tokūn: Before the earthquake, the population was about 13,000 people. Many of these people used to live with three or even four generations under a single roof. The history and culture that had been passed down from the ancestors were also highly valued. In the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident, people were forced to lead a life as “evacuees” for a long period of time. The radioactive contamination that followed the nuclear power plant accident was an especially new experience for all and therefore it was very difficult for us to respond to the situation. This contamination is invisible to the eye, has no odor, and cannot be felt. However, it turns out that it is actually there. Then, the Japanese government downplayed the problem by limiting itself to following the national plan for nuclear power plants. As a result, opinions on radioactivity issues were divided within the local community and between families, for example, about things like letting your clothes air dry or not, or eating your own vegetables grown in the garden. Also, difficult decisions needed to be made such as whether or not to return to our homes; these ended up opening up a huge spiritual fissure. Today, counting the people who have returned and the people living in the town, we are about 3,500 people.
Yaxkin: In your vision, what will be the challenges for the Minami Soma community in the coming years?
Tokūn: We have a lot of issues. The first one is the issue of our decreasing population. Now, in the district of Minami Soma called Odakaku, the people who have returned are 35% of the people who were living there before the earthquake, and the vast majority are elderly people. Therefore, in the next ten to twenty years, it is estimated that the population will diminish significantly. The second issue is the environmental problem. For example, this 35% of the population is carrying out the cooperative work that the entire community used to do for the maintenance of the forests, but since most of them are very old, the work has become almost impossible. As a result, the mountains have become wild, and wild boars and monkeys come down to the villages to plunder the orchards. It is possible that one of the causes lies in the increase of this animal population during the time when people were evacuated from the area. However, it is important to think that this is also connected to the fact that there is no food on the mountain. I think that is precisely the reason why these areas require careful care. The third issue is the heart and mind problems. The children who witnessed the nuclear power plant accident will soon come of age [* in Japan this is at 21 years old]. They have grown up seeing how the government has not taken care of the population of their towns, and how it has lied to only take care of itself (and the corporations). This government has unscrupulously lied, using a double standard that covers its true intentions [“honne”] with a language of appearance [“tatemae”], pleasing the strong and trampling the weak. The children who have seen all this bear wounds and therefore have no hope in society.
Yaxkin: How could the spiritual vision of Indigenous peoples enrich the vision and life of the Japanese?
Tokūn: I especially believe that the spiritual vision of Indigenous peoples is important because I care about the future of our boys and girls. Also, because of their posture of respect towards the Earth, as if she were a mother who should not be hurt. This way of thinking was generally shared by the ancient Japanese. Because Japan is a nation of islands, anciently it was highly valued to thank nature, the sea, and mountains for the blessings received from them. Things from nature were not taken in excess and were shared. After the industrial revolution, capitalist thought entered Japan. Despite the fact that we have been losing sight of things and falling into confusion, searching for our immediate benefit, I believe that the genes that were asleep within us have begun to awaken. I see as a hopeful sign people who, tired of living in the cities, seek a life in the countryside, or the fact that more young people are trying to make their lives smaller and closer to self-sufficiency. I think that is happening not only in Japan but all over the world at the same time.
Yaxkin: Do you believe in Mother Earth? For you, what is Mother Earth and, from Japanese Buddhism, how could we approach her?
Tokūn: Yes, of course. I am one more part of the Earth. If we take an apple tree as an example, each one of us is a fruit and the Earth is our tree. It is necessary to awaken to the consciousness that goes from the fruit to the tree. Precisely this tree is the shape of our future. I believe that if our consciousness from the fruit to the tree awakens, then a metamorphosis occurs like that of the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, and we will be able to naturally solve problems. I think that the emptiness [空 “kū”] explained in Buddhism explains these things too.
Yaxkin: How can we reconcile with Mother Earth?
Tokūn: Meditating within nature. Walking. Going into the sea and collecting garbage. Planting trees and caring for them in the mountains. These things allow us to listen to the voice of the Earth, and be able to “tune into it” by synchronizing it to our own being. Through this attunement, it becomes possible to hear the voice of the Earth. I believe that even with these little things, our mother (Earth) becomes happy and, as we heal from our wounds, we gain the opportunity to recover our connection with her.
Yaxkin: What is the role of poetry, songs, and the arts in this reconciliation?
Tokūn: The energy of the arts is very great. More than a thousand words, just a photograph, a single poem that makes a person’s heart resound is not a small thing. The Hopis have also written about this in their prophecies. It is known that the authentic Hopis are educated with clear thinking, good images, drawings, and rigorously chosen words. Education, in this case, does not mean education in White people’s sense, but true education for peace.
Yaxkin: Please share your vision with a phrase or poem.
Soil for my feet
An axe for my hands
Flowers for my eyes
Birds for my ears
Mushrooms for my nose
A smile for my mouth
Songs for my lungs
Sweat for my skin
Wind for my heart
Just that is enough.
(Mexico-Peru) He is a poet, translator of Japanese poetry, editor and researcher of ecopoetic thought. Yaxkin has a Masters in Asian and African Studies from the Colegio de Mexico. He specialized in the ecological vision of the Japanese wanderer poet and environmental activist Nanao Sakaki. Yaxkin is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. He recently published Hatun Mayu (Hanan Harawi, 2016), Cactus del viento (an anthology of Nanao Sakaki’s poetry, AEM, 2017), Meditaciones del Pedregal (Astrolabio, 2019) y GAIA. Poemas en la Tierra (2020). In 2020 he wrote a column on ecopoetics and haiku for the magazine El Rincón del Haiku. Along with Pedro Favaron, they coordinate the “Cactus del Viento” ecopoetics collection of Mother Earth. He is a member of the Mother Earth Poetic Research Group. He publishes in his blog: https://flordeamaneceres.wordpress.com/