To Be a Follower


I can’t remember exactly when I became aware of Nicholas Roerich. His paintings have haunted me since childhood. His spiritually charged landscapes and depictions of metaphysical events and wandering prophets engaged in exertions of the spirit–these productions have long been food for my soul. I have always likened him to Carl Jung–each seems to delve with the subtle assuredness of a skilled archeologist into psychic spaces that connect directly to the original creative fire.

Probably the earliest and most basic association I have with Roerich is his use of color. His colors seem to speak an ancient language, seem to live in a space not purely material. These are colors that speak on intimate terms with the soul. I am told that Roerich decoded secrets of paint mixing–secrets of craft that allowed these almost alchemical powers. His colors and forms do not “carry one away”. They carry us within, brining us closer to a vibrating essence that connect us to the living moment. All this will sound, perhaps, hopelessly metaphysical to those who have not yet looked at the painting of Nicholas Roerich. Reward yourselves by getting acquainted with his work. His work is life changing.

I do not remember seeing my first Roerich painting. I do not remember first hearing his name. His influence seems to have attended me since early childhood. His spiritual teachings seem to have made sparks in my mind also from a very early age. My childhood violin teacher was connected to the Roerich movement. Mr. Saphir’s gentle, nuanced and spiritually charged pacifism had a huge effect on me. (And the private concert he gave in our living room one evening of unaccompanied Bach partitas is one of the highlights of my youth.)

The simplest musical tasks he imbued with great dignity. The message was clear: culture demands safekeeping. And, in return, culture gives us back to ourselves in a more evolved and expansive state. Through chance and happenstance, the message and art of Nicholas Roerich was phased into my life over many years.

Although the past year has allowed me little time for music, I have been singing fairly regularly with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. (I encourage everyone to visit their marvelous website: It is a great resource for Russian culture.) Perhaps five or six times per year, we rehearse at the Nicholas Roerich Museum on W107th Street in Manhattan. It is a rich experience indeed to work on the great works of Russian choral music in this amazing space. The collection of paintings is truly phenomenal. Periodically, I will visit the museum simply to experience the impact of the collection. It is a tour through the caves, mountain tops, deserts and forest regions of the heart. In revisiting his images, Roerich continues to coax, challenge and re-invigorate. He provides clues, clarity, insight and therapy. Leaving the museum, my footsteps are more secure and lighter. My breathing is deeper and fuller.

I came to to know of his world-transforming activities. As my interest in international law developed I loked more deeply into the Roerich Pact, a truly unique and revelatory document that connects the potential of humankind with universal wisdom. It does so by affirming the value and power of culture–indeed, the absolute necessity of culture–and fusing it with Law. His work in the area of cultural preservation sparked a global movement. Roerich Societies promulgate everywhere. And his resonant message seems to be gaining in urgency and relevance with each passing year. Facing the dehumanizing effects of corporatism, seeing the spiritual and intellectual bedrock of international law attacked by the mechanized chisel of the profit motive, feeling powerless to prevent the erosion of our natural economic options by over-financialization and sickened by the mistreatment of our environment we instinctively draw closer to the fire and wisdom of culture. Individually and collectively, the Soul is at stake. As we look to access values deep enough to provide the energy and insight to combat these dark trends, we inevitably arrive at the universal temple fashioned from the immutable treasures of culture. Strengthened by this we increasingly resist the trivializing effect of consumerism. We are wise to do so. We see that it is a matter of survival.

A year and a half ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Jiri Toman. Jiri’s book “The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” is a classic and at that time he was very busy making revisions at the behest of UNESCO for a reprinting. The schedule for doing so was rather tight and I recall that Jiri excused himself early that evening. But we had plenty of time for a quite wonderful and substantive conversation that continues to inspire my efforts in Mongolia. We spoke of the need for a world culture/belief-system/ethos/religion–something capable of incorporating all the venerable traditions into a formidable and dignified whole, one that could serve as a basis for true unity. We spoke quite naturally of Roerich and his dream of world unity, acknowledging the power of culture to generate unity. We spoke of this as a necessity and acknowledged the sense of personal imperative. It a conversation that changed everything for me.

Jiri invited me soon after to join him the following May in Vienna. There we continued our discussions and I was introduced to brilliant colleagues each one deeply committed to the affirmation of culture and the evolution of of the human family. Dr. Franz Schuller, Secretary-General of the Austrian Society for the Protection of Cultural Property, was particularly generous with his time, taking me on a tour of the wine region and talking at length on his experience in the field of culture preservation. Dr. Schuller introduced me to Leylya Strobl, President of the Austrian Roerich Society. The three of us had dinner in Eisenstadt and Leylya offered to request an invitation for me to attend the annual Roerich conference in Moscow at the International Centre of the Roerichs. I was very excited at such a prospect because I felt that my project in Mongolia would be of great interest to the Roerich Society.

In October I found myself in Moscow. My request for an invitation via Leylya had been accepted on the basis of my project in Mongolia: the proposal being that Ulanbaatar become the new center for international law. The Hague, I argued, is too Western and polarizing. A new Mecca of Law is needed. With its proud history of enlightened legal governance under Genghis Khan, democratic culture and geopolitical centrality, Mongolia is the obvious choice. The attraction of such a project to the Roerich Society is very natural. Roerich’s interest in Mongolia and his sense of a mission there is, in many ways, father to my own. My belief that a legal regime, manifesting and embodying the most venerable legal traditions of the world and taking root in Mongolia harmonizes quite naturally with the aims Roerich Society–especially with regard to service to humanity. My position is that law is a sacred cultural phenomenon that corresponds with universal principles, and that if the world organizes an affirmation of these principles we might ignite a new era. This new era will see the defense of the environment and of human dignity. It will see the reform of institutions. It will see an end to the wanton disregard of institutions for the rule of law. But most importantly, it will see a tremendous surge in innovation and in understanding.
I see figured in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples something quite remarkable: the right to a sacred relationship to the Earth. This profound assertion is one that is certainly not philosophically limited to indigenous peoples. And in a larger sense, we are all indigenous anyway. Take a step back. See Earth from space. It turns like a tumbleweed, a great statement of both unfathomable strength and astonishing fragility.

The Future of International Law

When I talk of international law, I am talking about something that is in the process of becoming, as something existing in the sphere of the inevitable, feeling it to exist almost palpably in its pure potential form.  I sense a impending convergence of traditions and a popular effort to reconcile and synthesize the various strains of justice. To me, this is what will salvage the post-modern era from dissolution and collapse. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that international law is a western construct. Indeed, every major culture has within it a vision of universal harmony. Every major culture inevitably invokes the divine and seeks to “tune” human activities accordingly. Law–as stemming from a divine source and addressing the here-and-now–is Universal and the Universe seems to speak through Law. The institutions are overwhelmingly western. But that is merely situational, de facto, ad hoc. International law is in fact a universal constant on the psychic level. It manifests in some form everywhere. I am calling for a development of international law so that it reflects its universal origins.  I do not advocate a rejection of the West, but an enfolding of the West into a global  totality.  What is vital will remain after the hegemons are deflated.  The spirit of the Human Rights Movement will guarantee it.

There is some discomfort, especially in the West, around placing too much emphasis on the sacred sources of law. Our minds tend to rattle back and forth within the secular/sacred dichotomy. We are so absolutely committed to upholding this imagined duality that it is difficult for many of us to imagine a cultural outlook in which the sacred and secular interpenetrate, merge, become one. But an unwillingness to do so could stymie the convergence that is so badly needed. Excessively positivist thinking is certainly not limited to the West. But as we grope toward to a universal apprehension of legal harmony, we must consider that we are, to my mind, on a direct collision course with the Indigenous perspective–one that is fundamentally rooted in the sacred. It will be impossible in a few years to address issues of environmental law without invoking the divine, the sacred, the great spirit in the actual courtroom.  This is not the concept of the sacred as it exists in opposition to the secular.  This is the bedrock of all phenomena.

Those uncomfortable with this will simply have to hang in there. They may find their lives immeasurably improved in the process–although they themselves may not be able fully to account for this in “rational” terms. Even if cynicism only gives way to grudging respect for these “new old ways”, this will be an invaluable process for all. It will literally save the planet. It will enjoin all in harmonies that are universal, cosmic.  I am aware that all this has a very ethereal ring to it. But I believe the methods and consequences propagated by such an outlook will be undeniably concrete.  Developments in environmental law are already bearing this out.

One need only look at the role of the Indigenous perspective in administering the Arctic Council to see a powerful sign of things to come. Or the forward-thinking embrace of crypto-currencies by American Indian groups.   I encourage everyone to read the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a revolutionary document. Not only is it a direct link between Human Rights and the Indigenous Movement, but it amplifies many of the concerns and profound wishes of the 99% Movement.  It could almost serve as a manifesto for the global Occupy Movement!

It is difficult to imagine a more potent alliance than one linking the Indigenous Movement and the 99% Movement.  Hover a little ways back from the Earth, say, at the level of a high-flying satellite and it is a simple matter to see that we are all Indigenous. The Indigenous Movement has been trying to call our attention to this for many years. And as the Human Rights Movement connects with the right to preserve a sacred relationship with the Earth, secularists are going to undergo internal metamorphoses. This will be for the better.  In the 2007 UN Declaration, I believe that all of us can see the image of something deeply wished for.

My mentor, Prof. Yutaka Tajima said something to me in Tokyo last summer that has haunted me and guided subsequent efforts: “The essence of law is unspoken.” It was this beautifully empty statement that freed me, I believe, to entertain the idea that beneath the disparate forms of jurisprudence, we ultimately come together in tacit understanding.  I relate it to the Islamic saying that “Mercy is a higher virtue than justice.”  I relate it to the Confucian admonition to cultivate “li” (the underlying principles of justice) and to eschew “fa” (litigation) where possible.  I relate it to all that is precious and unspoken in the exchange between my sensei and myself.

Just as I am grateful to have seen the living, dynamic effects of justice in California’s central valley, I feel most fortunate to have cultivated somewhat my inchoate understanding in Japan. Sensei has taken me to visit shrines, to hike the Japanese wilderness, to meetings at the Japanese Bar Association, to great eel lunches. Woven through these activities has been an ongoing discussion. Essentially, the problem is: how to bring the world together?

The Indigenous Movement presently offers us an opportunity to reconnect with our own psychic origins and, concurrently, with the origin of life itself. Its momentum is irresistible. Its voice is kind and yet absolute, like the voice of my mentor. It calls for sustainable development. And it insists on language which many will find uncomfortable at first. And yet, international environmental law is predestined to receive its imprint. This much is certain.

The discomfort will be temporary. The human mind has a way of coming around.
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When I speak of international law, I am speaking of the product of an awakening. I speak of it this way because this is the best way, I believe, to actualize it. I speak of it this way because no matter where I am–in Tokyo, Brooklyn, Ulanbaatar, Vienna or Moscow–I hear the Shaman’s drum.