The hand formed clay figures above represent the 12 women who were recognized by the Buddha for having exceptional skills and enlightenment. They are known as Therigatha, or women elders in the early Buddhist tradition. These figures were made by the Venerable Dhammananda, the abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery for women in Thailand.
I had the delight and honor to spend 3 days practicing and photographing the nuns at the monastery. The clay figures were one of the priceless finds on the altar in one of the temples where we practiced meditation.
The wooden and stone buddhas and bodhisattvas in temples are not the real Buddha that can inspire us. They merely help calm us so we can concentrate our minds on the study of the teachings of Buddha. The truly inspiring Buddha can only be found in our hearts. ~ Cheng Yen
The building above is the entrance to the Fayu temple complex built on the side of a mountain on Putuoshan Island in China. You may enter five major temples one after another as you walk up steps between each exquisite site. Each temple is either dedicated to a particular Buddha or Buddhas or the bodhisattva Guanyin. The site was dazzling and took us over two hours to visit and make offerings at each temple.
The Guanyin image above was in the final temple at the top and was my favorite in the complex. She has a vase on one shoulder and a bird sitting on her other shoulder. The vase represents the healing amrita or water she offers others and the bird refers to the parrot that became her constant companion after she healed his grief from losing his mother. The rest of the temple was filled with many magnificent large and small Buddhas and Guanyin figures.
Guanyin Altar at Yangzhi Monastery on Putuoshan Island
Putuoshan Island off the coast of Shanghai is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. Each mountain is dedicated to a particular Bodhisattva and Putuoshan is dedicated to Guanyin, the goddess of compassion.
Last month I visited the many temples dedicated to her at Putuoshan and spent a week studying with Dr. Chun-Fang Yu, Columbia University’s scholar on the Guanyin. We studied the transformation of this deity from male into female over many centuries in Chinese history. While in certain settings Guanyin is still depicted as male, at Putuoshan she is primarily considered female and tied to the Chinese folk legend of Miaoshan, a young woman who is transformed into Guanyin through her exceptional sacrifices.
Guanyin Statue in reconstruction at Fayu Temple on Putuoshan Island
I’ll be sharing more of the story of Miaoshan later in this blog and also for the C.G. Jung Society in Denver on Oct 4. Learn more about the talk at www.thefemalebuddha.com
Guanyin: Archetype of Liberation and Love: Friday Oct 4, 7 p.m., First Divine Science Church, 14th Ave. and Williams St., $15 at the door, $10 for students and seniors
I’m in China this month studying and practicing at Putuoshan, an island dedicated to Guanyin since the last millennium. My husband and I received generous scholarships from a Chinese and American organization and are grateful for the opportunity to share our experience when we return.
In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism Tara is a beloved figure of compassion. Her wrathful energy is understood to serve others and to cut through to truth. In this form she is a protector and uses her energy wisely.
Tara is one of the few female figures of divinity that shows a full range of expression. The figure above is from the Tara Mandala in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. She is one of 21 Tara figures, each one with a specific expression and meaning. Her hand is in a teaching mudra and a Vajra emanates from her arm. The Vajra is a symbol of discriminating awareness and represents a thunderbolt.
Tara’s wisdom is expressed through the clarity and strength of a thunderbolt. Imagine a mother tiger protecting her young, ready to pounce if necessary. Her kindness is as powerful and direct. She teaches us to appreciate our emotions and channel our passions as devotion to others.
In a famous Zen proverb, one returns to the market place after the work of enlightenment. One brings the skills he or she has developed back into the world. These women at the floating market south of Bangkok reminded me of this proverb. Tourists are brought in hordes to this place yet the people marketing their wares go about their business with a calm and concentration that is notable. It may not be enlightenment but I witnessed something we do not observe in many parts of the world; a people at peace with the bustle about them.
I went to photograph the floating market several years ago during a trip to Bangkok and was first horrified by the insane tourist “scene.” It was only when I got inside the crammed water course that I began to notice the remarkable individuals in their boats and by the riverside. What a delight trying to capture their dignified essence! I was lucky they were happy to ignore another curiosity seeker with her clicking camera.
I took this photo last weekend at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Denver. I highly recommend this yearly event with musical performances, martial arts demonstrations and lots of great booths with kimonos, dolls and t-shirts with rich japanese paintings.
Normally we empower our demons by believing they are real and strong in themselves and have the power to destroy us. As we fight against them, they get stronger. But when we acknowledge them by discovering what they really need, and nurture them, our demons release their hold, and we find that they actually do not have power over us. By nurturing the shadow elements of our being with infinite generosity, we can access the state of luminous awareness and undermine ego. By feeding the demons, we resolve conflict and duality, finding our way to unity.
Getting friendly with powerful instinctive forces is easier said than done. I took the photo above during the Lotus Lantern Parade during the festival of the Buddha’s birthday in Seoul. I haven’t found the exact story it corresponds to as there are numerous myths about befriending tigers in Korea. I trust its symbolic message is universally vital.
Lama Tsultrim’s quote speaks to befriending “demons”, those aspects of ourselves and our world that frighten us. The girl riding the tiger is at ease with a beast we normally consider terrifying. She has learned to work with powerful energies and align herself with natural forces as she moves in the world.
We can learn with the innocence of a child to trust our “wild” nature. I imagine the young girl represents feminine intuition – something available to both men and women. As an aspect of our Buddha-nature, it is something we are born with and can be revealed as we re-train in our natural goodness…demons and all!
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