Monthly Archives: January 2013


For some reason these days my thoughts turn to Ishi. Perhaps because he died on a March 25 day(in 1916)—it was March 25 when I made solemn profession as a monk. Very, very few people know the full story of this remarkable person. This inspite of a reasonably good book by Theodora Kroeber, “Ishi in Two Worlds,” which Merton read when it first came out, was deeply affected by the story, and wrote an essay on it. But Merton’s essay and book titled “Ishi Means Man” is seldom read—by contrast Merton’s most other stuff has sold in the millions. So let us ponder this amazing story a bit.

First a bit of history and geography. Around 1800 anthropologists estimate that there were something like 300,000 Native Americans in California. Already that number was way down from what had been there before the Spanish came. But by 1900 there were only about 20,000 left. Most had died from being exposed to white man’s diseases; but many also were just simply massacred in numerous acts of genocide—especially from the Gold Rush era on. These massacres took place all over California: at Yosemite, in the Central Valley, in the Sierra Foothills, on the Coast. Native Americans were killed as if they were wild animals. They were in the way of “Progress.” When the Native Americans fought back, the retaliation and retribution was always a hundred fold.

From a Humboldt Times editorial in 1860: “It is as impossible for the white man and the wild Indian to live together as it is to unite oil and water.”
And from the Red Bluff Independent editorial, a more explicit statement: “It is becoming evident that extermination of the red devils will have to be resorted to.”
And from the Chico Courant: “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them…. Treaties are played out—there is only one kind of treaty that is effective—cold lead.”
As you can see from this sample, the genocide of the Native Americans was mainstream policy, not just the work of a few crazed extremists. As the historian Douglas Sackman points out in his book, “Wild Men,” “In 1855 a white man could show up in Shasta City with the severed heads of Indians and receive five dollars for each one…. Indian-hunting militias submitted their expenses to the state government. Such men were paid over a million dollars in 1851 and 1852 alone. The State of California subsequently appealed to the federal government to cover these expenses, and for the most part it did. The blood money was paid out to further what Anderson called a ‘general clean-up’ of all Indians who ‘infested’ the land.”(p.32)

Ishi, who was born sometime around 1860, was a member of the Yahi tribe, whose ancestral home was in the beautiful wilderness area that lies today in the Lassen National Forest, east of Red Bluff and north of Oroville. In the 1870s a series of massacres took place that wiped out his tribe. No one knows for sure how long Ishi lived in incredible solitude in an area that is even today so remote that it is hard to get to. One day in 1911, in desperation because he was starving, he walked out of his wilderness into the outskirts of Oroville. Eventually he was taken care of by anthropologists at UC Berkeley and died from TB in 1916. There is a Trappist monastery at Vina, California, just a couple of hours away from the Ishi Wilderness area. I wonder if they realize the blood-stained ground that is under their feet.

Ishi was a veritable “Last of the Mohicans” as he was the last of the Yahi. Today some believe that in fact Ishi was of mixed blood, maybe a member of two tribes. In diminishing numbers the Natives who lived in that area were often forced to intermarry to survive. Regardless, he was totally “uncontaminated” by white culture when he came out of the wilderness. The anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, gave him the name “Ishi” which in Yahi means “man,” a human being. What is especially interesting is that in Yahi culture you do not ask someone their name; it is a kind of secret. This Merton found amazing and haunting. Ishi’s real name was never known; something that he carried in his heart. Merton found this to be a sacrament and symbol of that “secret name” by which God calls us into existence out of infinite love. It is a name known by God alone. Speaking of identity(see previous posting), Ishi is simply a human being. One’s real identity is lost in the Mystery of God.

Here is what Theodora Kroeber said in her book: “Personal identity for man in modern Western civilization resides first of all in the family name to which he is born. At birth, or within a few days after, there is added the personal name bestowed by the parents, confirmed by the religious rite of baptism, and made legal and official by its formal recording in the books of the county clerk along with the family name and the exact place and time of birth. It is both a public name and the name by which individual is known to his family and friends….
The stranger whom the dogs held at bay outside the slaughter house was nameless; his jail name became ‘The Wild Man of Oroville.’… Reporters demanded to know his name, refusing to accept Kroeber’s word that the question was in the circumstances unmannerly and futile…. A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it , and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question. The reporters felt, not unnaturally, that they were being given ‘the runaround.’ …the museum people were themselves saying they must have something by which to call the Yahi…. Kroeber felt more pushed than did his nameless friend who remained relatively detached not understanding most of what was said, and standing quietly by Indian custom so far as he did understand. Said Kroeber, ‘Very well. He shall be known as ISHI.’ He regretted that he was unable to think of a more distinctive name, but it was not inappropriate, meaning ‘man’ in Yana, and hence not of the private or nickname category. Thus it was that the last of the Yahi was christened Ishi, and in historic fact became Ishi…. He never revealed his own private Yahi name. It was as though it had been consumed on the funeral pyre of the last of his loved ones. “

And Theodora Kroeber again: “…the commonest initial inquiry of a white traveler made to a strange California Indian took the form, ‘Who are you?’, to which the usual Indian answer was, ‘I am a person.’ What else was he to answer? It was a rude question, whether rudely meant or not. One did not say one’s name, certainly not to a stranger. One belonged to the people. One was a person. As for the saltu, Ishi’s name for the white race, it means a being of another order, a non-human, a pre-human….”

Merton found it fascinating that Ishi simply means Man, a human being. He could not help but comment on our destructiveness toward these people. We are participants in the destruction of mankind itself; in destroying the Yahi, we were destroying ourselves. Sad and tragic that this is going on all around the globe. Merton was also haunted by the solitude of Ishi. There was a depth of solitude there that was almost unspeakable. Ishi, like Merton himself, was not a natural loner—he liked the company of people; but both a physical solitude and a deep spiritual solitude was to be his “home.”

Kroeber has this to say about the early Native Americans of California:
“The California Indian was, in other words, a true provincial. He was also an introvert, reserved, contemplative, and philosophical. He lived at ease with the supernatural and the mystical which were pervasive in all aspects of life. He felt no need to differentiate mystical truth from directly evidential or ‘material’ truth, or the supernatural from the natural: one was as manifest as the other within his system of values and perceptions and beliefs. The promoter, the boaster, the aggressor, the egoist, the innovator, would have been looked at askance. The ideal was the man of restraint, dignity, rectitude, he of the Middle Way”(p.23).

There is not much more to add to this sad story. But every monk and every spiritual seeker should see his/her solidarity with Ishi. Not to mention the changes we need in how we look at our national history and identity. What has happened to the Native Americans is almost unspeakable. Those who survived the genocide were not given their own homeland, like the Jews in Israel, but herded into reservations where their whole world, both inner and outer, was gutted out. It is a very sad, a very unfortunate, a very tragic fact that the Native Americans never had their own Gandhi. The Ghost Dance movement was totally ineffective because it was totally spiritual and never developed a social strategy to combat “the white devils.” The Chiefs who handled their matters in the 19th Century mostly believed in negotiating with the white intruders. The resultant treaties were not worth the paper they were written on. So many Native Americans completely lost their inner orientation and their native spiritual gifts and tried to become like “whites.” So many sold out and endorsed casinos and coal mining on the rez, etc—all of course for the so-called economic good of the people. Instead of going deep within themselves and totally rejecting white values and killer culture, so many simply tried to be “white” and of course mostly they failed and so the despair. The kind of violent confrontations that AIM promoted in the 1970s was also futile and just what “The Man” wanted because whitey can deal with that quite effectively. The solution for the Native American is almost diametrically opposite of what its current leadership is pointing to. But, alas, this is just another white man speaking!!!


Identity is a burden. Strange way of putting it. Culture and civilization are almost inextricably linked to this dynamic at various levels of our being. Our self-conscious mode of existence makes us claim, “I am this” or “I am that”….”I am…….”—fill in the blank any way you want. I am healthy. I am beautiful. I am wise. I am an American. I am a Christian. I am wealthy. I have gone to an elite school. I drive a Mercedes. I am good at…. I am devout. I am a monk. I am one of the poor. Etc., etc. We invariably make such claims as our identity one way or another. Because we are in history and social beings with self-awareness, we develop these various “markers.” There is this mysterious mirror of sorts that we constantly look into to see who we are. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the….of them all?” Indeed. Some of these identities are obviously very superficial, others seemingly very deep, and some are “truly me”—so you think.

It is not the truth or factuality of such a statement that is in question. We are in fact a certain “somebody” with some markers of various sorts and in a sense we belong to a certain group and share certain features with other members of this group, but all this becomes a real burden when such an identity statement becomes another possession that will need protecting, guarding, holding onto—in other words that this is my core reality, the “real me.” But in fact all identities that we can look at and claim are “loseable” and therefore a source of a very deep anxiety because we believe we stop existing once they are “not there”—especially the so-called deep ones. Also the bewildering thing is that this burden will be the same no matter how I fill in the blank. “I am a hermit who spends his time praying.” Or: “I am a businessman who spends his time making as much money as I can.” Really, “good identity” or “bad identity” does not matter in a sense. That dynamic of claiming to be “this” or “that”, to be “somebody” is in itself the burden that needs to be addressed.

Pop culture thrives on this dynamic. There is a fancy slick magazine with a big ad: BE SOMEBODY. Perhaps you will recall that old movie, “On the Waterfront.” The Marlon Brando character is lamenting to his brother about how his brother had betrayed him, “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody.” Within the context of society, it is truly death to be nobody. In order to be “somebody,” society gives you a number(actually many numbers); it points at you with a certain name and a certain description; it invites you to be unique through its various accouterments; it urges you to promote yourself through a resume; it holds up a mirror of pop culture for you to look at yourself and hopefully to gain approval; etc. etc. This identity thing is the most addictive thing there is. And here I will repeat my favorite quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “A guy with the gambling sickness loses his shirt every night in a poker game. Somebody tells him that the game is crooked, rigged to send him to the poorhouse. And he says, haggardly, ‘I know, I know. But it is the only game in town.’” The identity game seems to be the only game in town. So it is played, and so much of modern life depends on this playing. Thus we end up inevitably being “losers.” The game is fixed. We can’t help but lose. Thus that burden of the deep anxiety because all “possessions” will invariably be lost.

There are these “thieves” who can come and steal away these kinds of possessions: illness, criticism, getting old, a failure in some endeavor, etc. etc. But the biggest and most comprehensive and most unavoidable thief is Death. No identity that shows up in that mirror can survive this thief. I say “unavoidable” because in fact so much of modern psychic life is energized by a fear of death, by a denial of death. Who am I after I lose all these identities? Now every spiritual tradition addresses this issue in one way or another. We have already touched on this subject in a previous posting in the series: Foundations & Fundamentals: The Self, and really all over the place because this is such a central topic in any serious spirituality. The identity game must be left behind; the mirror must be shattered; the knot of identity must be undone and dissolved. But how? Social identity will always be there one way or another, but it is the sense of self that is at stake. If our sense of self is misidentified as one of these “loseable” realities, we are lost in this game. A kind of liberation is called for.

Recall the language of apophasis, as in apophatic theology and apophatic mysticism. It speaks of the ultimate unknowability of God, of God as Ultimate Mystery. Whatever we say of God, there has to be a kind of unsaying because God is not this or that. In other words the identity of God is not graspable by us in any way, but we will gain more and more of this knowledge through eternity and yet never reach the end. The most radical apophatic mysticism can be found in Christian mysticism from Pseudo-Dionysius to John of the Cross and in Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads. The “neti, neti” of the latter text is a radical “unsaying” of whatever it is that we affirm of God. Now if we push this a bit further, we will see that our own identity, in its truth and essence, is lost in the Mystery of God, and that also is not graspable as some kind of social identity. Thus there is a very real apophasis of identity for us. Our true identity which nothing and no one can take away is lost in the Mystery of God where we are “neither two, nor one” with Him. The reality is unsayable.

Think of Jesus in the Gospels. All kinds of identity statements there—the game is being played with great vigor: Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, prophet, Nazarene, “Joseph’s son,” “messiah,” “the one who is to come,” etc., etc. But in the midst of all these “sayings of identity” there is interwoven a kind of “unsaying of identity.” The whole pericope about the Temptation in the Desert is a kind of purging of false or superficial identities. Ultimately this leads to the Cross where all superficial identities and so-called deep identities are wiped out. And the Gospels have this repeated invitation to “this Cross,” the “narrow gate,” the “eye of the needle,” etc. It is too often assumed that the dispossession that Jesus talks about is simply external things. These are there but they are more like a pointer to the fundamental dispossession of identity that is truly a huge burden on our being, which we hardly recognize until the moment of liberation.

When Jesus invites his disciples to be “like little children,” he is not inviting them to an infantile regression or to make pious faces(as Merton would put it) in a kind of make-believe humility. The child in that social setting was not the same as the child today—he/she had absolutely no social standing until they entered adulthood. The child was literally a “nobody” until he/she entered adulthood through some initiation. Thus this is an invitation to a kind of “nobodyness.” Or at the very least of a true stripping of all these social facades that we hold so dear. Then there is the place in the Gospels where Jesus invites us to trade the kind of “treasure” that “moth and rust” can eat away or a thief can steal away for the “treasure” that cannot be so affected. Among other things this is an invitation to a new sense of identity, to one that cannot be lost to any thief or process. Finally he also invites us to lay down our “heavy burden” and pick up his “burden and yoke” which is easy and light. Again, it is a shift in our awareness of who we really our. Our real identity is in Christ, or in our oneness with Christ in our hearts and this is untouchable by any thief, even death. As St. Paul tells it, put on the mind of Christ. Consider now this quote from Paul (Romans 8: 35-39):

​“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul is pointing at our real identity which is one with Christ, which makes us inseparable from him and so plunged into the total Mystery of God which in the language of the New Testament is called “Father,” “Abba.” The Ultimate Mystery is brought “home,” brought into an intimate relationship of unspeakable unity. No matter how eloquent Paul is about all this, I still think our Sufi friends put it as well if not better. Consider this quote from Bukhari(81:38): “When I [Allah] love my servant…I become the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the feet with which he walks, the tongue with which he speaks.” The “I” which we treasure so much, dress up so much with so many identities, which is such a big burden then, becomes extinguished as it were; and the “I” of God takes over the whole being. We dare go no further in our language!