CESAR — Without saying a word, which none would have understood anyway, Guneymaku Chaparro, an Arhuaca Mamo or spiritual leader, and Tenzin Priyadarshi, a monk and disciple of the Dalai Lama, took each other's hands and lightly put their heads together to say good-bye.

It was the end of a meeting that the northern Colombia natives, living now in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, had been expecting for centuries.

The two met at a spot a two-hour walk to the north of Nabusímake, a site venerated by the Arhuaco nation. The paths leading there are restricted: Only those with a proper understanding of Arhuaca beliefs may use them. We were given access and attended the meeting, all barefoot, in direct contact with Mother Earth.

The Mamos, dressed in typical white robes and wearing conical caps that symbolize the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, gave the monk an emotional welcome. And he, clad in a Buddhist monk's ochre and orange robes, was ready to receive a message destined for the spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists

Tenzin Priyadarshi left his home at the age of 10, impelled by a force that led him after several days to a monastery he had only seen in his dreams. He knew there that "they were waiting for him," and he began then a life of study and meditation, and of helping the many people who would in time seek his counsels about the hardships of this life. It's a life he sees with simplicity and the accumulated wisdom of those able to reach the essence and rid themselves of the dramas we helplessly term bad fortune

Tenzin Priyadarshi made the pilgrimage from MIT. Photo: Christopher Michel

He speaks and acts like a spritely man of 400 years living in a 40-year-old body. He responds simply to a range of questions, with a fundamental, refined and definitive logic. Tenzin studied physics, as one of his ancestors wanted him to, but also philosophy and international relations. His "nest" is in the Buddhist chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also runs a center for ethical studies. Above all, he carries a millennial tradition with grace and is able to speak without arrogance, sharing with anyone a little of his wisdom

Preparing for his arrival

The Mamos stayed awake the night before he came, engaged in extensive dialogue with their pupils. They described to them aspects of Buddhism, which they said shares some of the Arhuacos' own interpretations of life. The message they wanted Tenzin to take with him was expressed in the form of several Mamos performances. They began with a declaration that they had been expecting the arrival of a man from the East who would bring them a message of understanding and encouragement in their fight to defend the earth and nurture harmony among its creatures. 

After that, they stressed the Arhuacos' ancestral beliefs about the duty to respect the natural world and Original Law, intended to order relations between good and evil, light and darkness and between all creatures, including ourselves. The rites expressed the Arhuacos' anxiety about threats to the natural balance of which they are guardians, and at the failure to understand its laws. They are worried about people's inability to capture nature's messages, and to appreciate the ephemeral nature of our existence and duties to the future.

Native inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range. Photo: Thomas Dahlberg

It was a moving encounter between two worlds with no confusion over their respective origins, beliefs, values and destiny. Two worlds of serenity that know how to keep their traditions and live a life of simplicity and happiness.

And witnessing the meeting was an audience from a third world, Colombia. What are we if not confused about our origins, beginnings and destiny, disorderly in our beliefs, barely able to list our values and divorced from our rituals. We are, of course, convinced that we are the happiest people on earth, proud of our passions yet indolent before violence and inequality.

We boast of living in an advanced democracy, would fight to the death for every little privilege — even a parking space — yet are happy to follow imposed codes of conduct that kill both imagination and initiative. Clothed as we are without knowing why, and almost inclined to kill ourselves before accepting a reproach. We are definitely among those beginners banned from treading the Arhuacos' woodland paths.