Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • You know, culture was born of the imagination,

  • and the imagination -- the imagination as we know it --

  • came into being when our species descended

  • from our progenitor, Homo erectus,

  • and, infused with consciousness, began a journey that would carry it

  • to every corner of the habitable world.

  • For a time, we shared the stage with our distant cousins, Neanderthal,

  • who clearly had some spark of awareness,

  • but -- whether it was the increase in the size of the brain,

  • or the development of language,

  • or some other evolutionary catalyst --

  • we quickly left Neanderthal gasping for survival.

  • By the time the last Neanderthal disappeared in Europe,

  • 27,000 years ago,

  • our direct ancestors had already,

  • and for 5,000 years,

  • been crawling into the belly of the earth,

  • where in the light of the flickers of tallow candles,

  • they had brought into being

  • the great art of the Upper Paleolithic.

  • And I spent two months in the caves of southwest France

  • with the poet Clayton Eshleman, who wrote a beautiful book called "Juniper Fuse."

  • And you could look at this art and you could, of course,

  • see the complex social organization

  • of the people who brought it into being.

  • But more importantly, it spoke of a deeper yearning,

  • something far more sophisticated than hunting magic.

  • And the way Clayton put it was this way.

  • He said, "You know, clearly at some point,

  • we were all of an animal nature, and at some point, we weren't."

  • And he viewed proto-shamanism as a kind of original attempt,

  • through ritual, to rekindle a connection

  • that had been irrevocably lost.

  • So, he saw this art not as

  • hunting magic, but as postcards of nostalgia.

  • And viewed in that light,

  • it takes on a whole other resonance.

  • And the most amazing thing about the Upper Paleolithic art

  • is that as an aesthetic expression,

  • it lasted for almost 20,000 years.

  • If these were postcards of nostalgia,

  • ours was a very long farewell indeed.

  • And it was also the beginning of our discontent,

  • because if you wanted to distill all of our experience

  • since the Paleolithic, it would come down to two words:

  • how and why.

  • And these are the slivers of insight upon which cultures have been forged.

  • Now, all people share the same

  • raw, adaptive imperatives.

  • We all have children.

  • We all have to deal with the mystery of death,

  • the world that waits beyond death,

  • the elders who fall away into their elderly years.

  • All of this is part of our common experience,

  • and this shouldn't surprise us, because, after all,

  • biologists have finally proven it to be true,

  • something that philosophers have always dreamt to be true.

  • And that is the fact that we are all brothers and sisters.

  • We are all cut from the same genetic cloth.

  • All of humanity, probably, is descended from a thousand people

  • who left Africa roughly 70,000 years ago.

  • But the corollary of that is that,

  • if we all are brothers and sisters

  • and share the same genetic material,

  • all human populations share the same raw human genius,

  • the same intellectual acuity.

  • And so whether that genius is placed

  • into -- technological wizardry

  • has been the great achievement of the West --

  • or by contrast, into unraveling the complex threads

  • of memory inherent in a myth,

  • is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.

  • There is no progression of affairs

  • in human experience.

  • There is no trajectory of progress. There's no pyramid

  • that conveniently places Victorian England at the apex

  • and descends down the flanks

  • to the so-called primitives of the world.

  • All peoples are simply cultural options,

  • different visions of life itself.

  • But what do I mean by different visions of life

  • making for completely different

  • possibilities for existence?

  • Well, let's slip for a moment into the greatest culture sphere

  • ever brought into being by the imagination,

  • that of Polynesia.

  • 10,000 square kilometers,

  • tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.

  • I recently sailed on the Hokulea,

  • named after the sacred star of Hawaii,

  • throughout the South Pacific to make a film

  • about the navigators.

  • These are men and women who, even today, can name

  • 250 stars in the night sky.

  • These are men and women who can sense the presence of distant atolls

  • of islands beyond the visible horizon,

  • simply by watching the reverberation of waves

  • across the hull of their vessel, knowing full well

  • that every island group in the Pacific

  • has its unique refractive pattern

  • that can be read with the same perspicacity

  • with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

  • These are sailors who in the darkness, in the hull of the vessel,

  • can distinguish as many as 32 different sea swells

  • moving through the canoe at any one point in time,

  • distinguishing local wave disturbances

  • from the great currents that pulsate across the ocean,

  • that can be followed with the same ease

  • that a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea.

  • Indeed, if you took all of the genius

  • that allowed us to put a man on the moon

  • and applied it to an understanding of the ocean,

  • what you would get is Polynesia.

  • And if we slip from the realm of the sea

  • into the realm of the spirit of the imagination,

  • you enter the realm of Tibetan Buddhism.

  • And I recently made a film called "The Buddhist Science of the Mind."

  • Why did we use that word, science?

  • What is science but the empirical pursuit of the truth?

  • What is Buddhism but 2,500 years

  • of empirical observation

  • as to the nature of mind?

  • I travelled for a month in Nepal with our good friend, Matthieu Ricard,

  • and you'll remember Matthieu famously said to all of us

  • here once at TED,

  • "Western science is a major response to minor needs."

  • We spend all of our lifetime trying to live to be 100

  • without losing our teeth.

  • The Buddhist spends all their lifetime trying to understand the nature of existence.

  • Our billboards celebrate naked children in underwear.

  • Their billboards are manuals,

  • prayers to the well-being of all sentient creatures.

  • And with the blessing of Trulshik Rinpoche, we began a pilgrimage

  • to a curious destination,

  • accompanied by a great doctor.

  • And the destination was a single room in a nunnery,

  • where a woman had gone into lifelong retreat

  • 55 years before.

  • And en route, we took darshan from Rinpoche,

  • and he sat with us and told us about the Four Noble Truths,

  • the essence of the Buddhist path.

  • All life is suffering. That doesn't mean all life is negative.

  • It means things happen.

  • The cause of suffering is ignorance.

  • By that, the Buddha did not mean stupidity;

  • he meant clinging to the illusion

  • that life is static and predictable.

  • The third noble truth said that ignorance can be overcome.

  • And the fourth and most important, of course,

  • was the delineation of a contemplative practice

  • that not only had the possibility

  • of a transformation of the human heart,

  • but had 2,500 years of empirical evidence

  • that such a transformation was a certainty.

  • And so, when this door opened onto the face of a woman

  • who had not been out of that room in 55 years,

  • you did not see a mad woman.

  • You saw a woman who was more clear

  • than a pool of water in a mountain stream.

  • And of course, this is what the Tibetan monks told us.

  • They said, at one point, you know, we don't really believe

  • you went to the moon, but you did.

  • You may not believe that we achieve enlightenment

  • in one lifetime, but we do.

  • And if we move from the realm of the spirit

  • to the realm of the physical,

  • to the sacred geography of Peru --

  • I've always been interested in the relationships of indigenous people

  • that literally believe that the Earth is alive,

  • responsive to all of their aspirations,

  • all of their needs.

  • And, of course, the human population

  • has its own reciprocal obligations.

  • I spent 30 years living amongst

  • the people of Chinchero

  • and I always heard about an event that I always wanted to participate in.

  • Once each year, the fastest young boy

  • in each hamlet is given the honor of becoming a woman.

  • And for one day, he wears the clothing of his sister

  • and he becomes a transvestite,

  • a waylaka. And for that day,

  • he leads all able-bodied men on a run,

  • but it's not your ordinary run.

  • You start off at 11,500 feet.

  • You run down to the base of the sacred mountain, Antakillqa.

  • You run up to 15,000 feet,

  • descend 3,000 feet.

  • Climb again over the course of 24 hours.

  • And of course, the waylakama spin,

  • the trajectory of the route,

  • is marked by holy mounds of Earth,

  • where coke is given to the Earth, libations of alcohol to the wind,

  • the vortex of the feminine is brought to the mountaintop.

  • And the metaphor is clear: you go into the mountain as an individual,

  • but through exhaustion, through sacrifice,

  • you emerge as a community that has once again

  • reaffirmed its sense of place in the planet.

  • And at 48, I was the only outsider ever to go through this,

  • only one to finish it.

  • I only managed to do it by chewing more coca leaves in one day

  • than anyone in the 4,000-year history of the plant.

  • But these localized rituals become pan-Andean,

  • and these fantastic festivals,

  • like that of the Qoyllur Rit'i, which occurs

  • when the Pleiades reappear in the winter sky.

  • It's kind of like an Andean Woodstock:

  • 60,000 Indians on pilgrimage

  • to the end of a dirt road

  • that leads to the sacred valley, called the Sinakara,

  • which is dominated by three tongues

  • of the great glacier.

  • The metaphor is so clear. You bring the crosses from your community,

  • in this wonderful fusion of Christian

  • and pre-Columbian ideas.

  • You place the cross into the ice,

  • in the shadow of Ausangate, the most sacred of all Apus,

  • or sacred mountains of the Inca.

  • And then you do the ritual dances that empower the crosses.

  • Now, these ideas and these events

  • allow us even to deconstruct iconic places

  • that many of you have been to, like Machu Picchu.

  • Machu Picchu was never a lost city.

  • On the contrary, it was completely linked in

  • to the 14,000 kilometers of royal roads

  • the Inca made in less than a century.

  • But more importantly, it was linked in

  • to the Andean notions of sacred geography.

  • The intiwatana, the hitching post to the sun,

  • is actually an obelisk that constantly reflects the light

  • that falls on the sacred Apu of Machu Picchu,

  • which is Sugarloaf Mountain, called Huayna Picchu.

  • If you come to the south of the intiwatana, you find an altar.

  • Climb Huayna Picchu, find another altar.

  • Take a direct north-south bearing,

  • you find to your astonishment

  • that it bisects the intiwatana stone,

  • goes to the skyline,

  • hits the heart of Salcantay, the second of the most important mountains

  • of the Incan empire.

  • And then beyond Salcantay, of course,

  • when the southern cross reaches the southernmost point in the sky,

  • directly in that same alignment, the Milky Way overhead.

  • But what is enveloping Machu Picchu from below?

  • The sacred river, the Urubamba, or the Vilcanota,

  • which is itself the Earthly equivalent of the Milky Way,

  • but it's also the trajectory that Viracocha walked

  • at the dawn of time when he brought the universe into being.

  • And where does the river rise?

  • Right on the slopes of the Koariti.

  • So, 500 years after Columbus,

  • these ancient rhythms of landscape

  • are played out in ritual.

  • Now, when I was here at the first TED,

  • I showed this photograph: two men of the Elder Brothers,

  • the descendants, survivors of El Dorado.