Buddha, Birds and Freedom: Photos from Burma

For those whom there is no hoarding,

Who have fully understood the nature of food,

And whose pasture is freedom

That is empty, that has no sign,

Their course is as hard to trace

As that of birds in the sky.

The Buddha ~ The Dhammapada


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The quote by the Buddha refers to the quality of freedom experienced by the enlightened, leaving no trace like a bird in the sky.  Empty of any “baggage”, the sages freedom is without the things we hoard and the desires that drive our clinging to the material world.  We can understand this metaphor to also refer to all hoarding; of our past wounds, of our future expectations and ultimately, our sense of self.  Freedom is liberation of the heart and mind, an experience aptly described by the flight of a bird in the clean, bright, open blue sky.

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Two years ago we had the delight to visit Shwedagon temple in Rangoon with many  outdoor altars and many golden Buddhas.  Pilgrims left plates of rice offerings and the crows kept the offerings fresh by waiting on top of a Buddha’s head and regularly cleaning the plates.  I found the juxtaposition of the many Buddhas and   crows delightful.  At home when reviewing my photos I found more crows in the shots than I remembered! Can you find them too?

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When looking for images to offer for the holiday season I found myself drawn to these photographs and wanted to offer something playful and rich.  May you delight in this season of renewal and freedom.

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Enlightened Women of the Therigatha

Therigatha Altar

Therigatha Altar

There are women teachers everywhere.  It is for me to recognize and acknowledge this fact.

China Galland

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.

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Watermoon Guanyin, Sanyi, Taiwan

Guanyin at Wat Pho

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The Buddha and Bodhisattva in our Heart

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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

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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.

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Riding the Tiger: At one with our demons

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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.

Lama Tsultrim Allione

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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Tara: Working with Anger Wisely

Tara

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…if anger arises in the mind in response to an outside event, it’s helpful to look for either the saddening or frightening aspect of that event and then take whatever measures we can to address the sadness or the fear.  Knowing that negativity or aversion is a transitional energy never means to ignore it.  It means to see it clearly, always, and work with it wisely.                                             Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia’s words remind us to work with whatever arises in the mind with equanimity and clear seeing.  Equanimity is necessary for clear seeing.  We need to be able to calm ourselves enough to look at our agitation without judgment or attachment.  Then we can see beneath the anger to our fear or loss.  Compassion naturally arises for ourselves, the other and our situation when we see vulnerability beneath our tendency to defend and fight.

In the Tibetan tradition, Tara, the goddess of compassion, also helps us see that all states are ultimately pure, even our anger.  The wrathful image of her above*, shows her working skillfully with powerful emotion to cut through to truth.  Nothing in human experience is rejected or labeled “bad.”  In fact, this statue symbolically represents the value of the right use of wrath in certain circumstances.  Imagine a mother protecting her child from an assailant.  Or the feelings that arise that clue us into a terrible injustice.  How we work with anger defines our humanity and our effectiveness.  Think Nelson Mandala or Mother Teresa.

In Nonviolent Communication all feelings are valued as indicators to learning more about ourselves.  What we label as “difficult emotions” help us discover the basic need for happiness and our urgent desire to have it met.  Mindfulness practices help us slow down, learn to settle our mind and set the stage for insight. Nonviolent communication skills help us learn more about ourselves and others and work with difference mindfully and with words.

*This statue is one of 21 depictions of Tara in the temple at the Tara Mandala Retreat Center in Pagosa Springs.

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Please see www.thefemalebuddha.com for more on Guanyin and Tara a goddesses of compassion.

Light of Consciousness: Journal of Spiritual Awakening

Light of Consciousness Magazine

Light of Consciousness Magazine

This wonderful magazine, Light of Consciousness, has a five page article, including seven photos, that I wrote on Visions of The Female Buddha.  Please check it out!

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Learning to be kind to ourselves, learning how to respect ourselves, is important.  The reason it’s important is that, fundamentally, when we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering.  We’re discovering the universe.

Pema Chodron.

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Reflections on Tara and her Teachings

Tara with Bow and Arrow

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, fining our way to unity.

                                                                                            Tsultrim Allione

Tsultrim Allione’s words remind us to embrace or demons, the most challenging thoughts, fantasies and feelings that arise in the mind.  The statues in the temple at Tara Mandala remind us of the attributes necessary to work with these demons.  Some of the Tara figures are centered and calm, others with heightened wakefulness or fierce and determined.

Tara with Teaching Mudra

The left hand of every Tara is in the teaching mudra, joining the thumb and third finger to represent the wheel of “dharma” or truth in the Buddhist tradition.  She offers this blessing to all who seek her wisdom.  Known as a Buddha, her various manifestations symbolize qualities associated with enlightenment.  As a Bodhisattva, Tara is a constant seeker and completely dedicates her many actions to the welfare of others.

Tara Mandala Temple

The inspired architecture of the many-sided temple of Tara Mandala shelters twenty-one statues. One can circumambulate the inner chanber to study the distinct characteristics of each Tara and the sacred object above her left shoulder.  A bell, dagger, bow and arrow or dorje are a few of the symbols.  The bell is feminine and represents wisdom.  The masculine dorje is a symbol of lightening or skillful activity.  With the dagger she defeats negativity and the bow and arrow is a sign of her focused attention.

Detail on Throne

The throne in front of the central altar is the seat for the Buddha’s word.  It is occupied by Tsultrim or visiting teachers acknowledged for their deep understanding of the dharma.  Luminous colors and intricate designs are common in the Tibetan tradition of this temple.  The fierce winged garuda on the throne is a protector and guardian figure.

Tara on Central Altar

The central Tara figure occupies the main altar with a knot of eternity above her shoulder signifying many things including the interdependent nature of wisdom and compassion.  Behind her is a brocade of white, green, yellow and red Tara figures.  White Tara is a serene motherly figure, Green Tara is known for her energetic compassion, Red Tara is fierce in magnetizing what is needed and Yellow Tara is known to bring prosperity.

My experience as a photographer and practitioner at Tara Mandala was sublime and I am very greatful for the opportunity.  I am humbled to offer her images and a quote of the founder of Tara Mandala, Tsultrim Allione, are in my forthcoming book The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation and Love.

While representing the feminine in all its beauty, please know the art is sacred and must be respected as an aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion.  To visit the treasures of Tara Mandala in Pagosa Springs, sign up for a retreat, workshop or attend services noted on their website at www.taramandala.org 

For more photos and inspirational words go to www.thefemalebuddha.com or www.luminousbuddha.com

A Mother Meets the Buddha: Patacara

Patacara statueThis photo of Patacara is taken in Thailand at Songdhammakalyani Monastery where 12 statues are placed of the foremost Theri (elder nuns) from the time of the Buddha.  

The next photo is from the same monastery of clay sculptures of the Theri by Venerable Dhammananda.  

The last photo shows Rev. Dhammananda and the sisters of the monastary meditating under a Medicine Buddha.

   

Last night I delivered a speech about Patacara to the 2012 graduating class of Transpersonal Counseling Psychology at Naropa University.  I learned several members of the class would sing Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Paul Simon right before my talk.  Those students inspired the beginning of my speech:

Our job as transpersonal psychotherapists is to be that bridge over troubled waters and to help others to learn to ease their minds.  Our job is also to inspire the depths that are possible below those troubled waters, where the peace of our greatest nature resides.

In an ancient Chinese text, the TaoTe Ching, an old sage expressed it this way:

Some say my teachings are nonsense.

Others call them lofty yet impractical

But for those who have looked inside themselves,

This nonsense makes perfect sense.

And to those who have put it into practice,

this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:

simplicity, patience and compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Simple in actions and thoughts,

you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

You accord with the way things are.

Compassionate towards yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.***


Therigatha statues

Simple in our thinking as we start to drop some of our mind chatter and insecurities.  Instead of our ranting or babbling with others, simply saying, “I’m sad or angry and I need support” or “I hear how much pain you are in.”

Patient towards all parts of ourselves, towards the differences of others and what we don’t understand.

Compassionate. Trusting compassion is our basic nature.  When we look within and put compassion into practice our world is righted and we see a human being where we once saw a wrong.

I’d like to share a story on this day before Mother’s day about a mother who lost everything, went mad and then found a bridge over troubled waters.

Her name is Patacara and she lived some 2500 years ago in ancient India.   She was making the traditional trip home to her parents to birth her second child.

The baby came midway on the journey and while her husband struggled to make a shelter in a storm he was bit by a poisonous snake and died.

Continuing her journey both her sons died as she attempted to cross a river.

When she came to the town of her family she discovered her parents and brother died when their house collapsed in a fire. The ashes were still smoldering.

Mad with grief she wandered about walking in circles and tearing at her cloths. As a ragged and now homeless person people threw trash at her.

Sitting with the Medicine Buddha

One day she entered a grove where the Buddha was teaching and the audience attempted to keep her away.  Nevertheless the Buddha approached her and said “Sister, recover your presence of mind.”

Her mind became clear at that moment and after hearing his words of wisdom she asked to be ordained.  On the spot he left the audience and  took her to a community of nuns where she was accepted.

Here is a poem by Patacara of her later enlightenment in a moving translation by Anne Waldmen, one of the founders of our Writing and Poetics program:

Young Brahmins plough fields,

sow seeds,

nourish their wives and children,

get wealthy

Why can’t I find peace?

I’m virtuous

comply with the teacher

not lazy or puffed up

One day washing my feet

I watched the water as it

trickled down the slope

I fixed my mind

the way you’d

train a thoroughbred horse

Later, taking my lamp

I enter my cell

sit on my bed and

watch the flame

I extinguish the wick

with a needle

The release of my mind

is like the quenching of the lamp

O the nirvana of the little lamp!

Patacara expresses frustration in this verse yet describes how she returns to a simple practice with patience.  No longer tearing her cloths to shreds or the facets of her mind she finds the compassion that has no boundaries.

The moment the lamp is extinguished so is her final suffering.  Her peace is the bliss of nirvana.

Patacara went on to become a great teacher and many expressed their appreciation her for being their own bridge over troubled waters.

We have a lot to celebrate today.  You’ve followed your own emotional, mental and spiritual path of development these past 3 or 4 years.

You’ve shared what you’ve learned of simplicity, patience and compassion with your clients in internship.  You bring your presence of mind to your work and invite others onto the same path.  This is the transpersonal path.

Now you are about to make your own journey as healers into the world.  I speak for all the staff and faculty of Naropa University in wishing you many, many blessings on your journey.

***translation by Stephen Mitchell

All photos by Deborah Bowman

For more photos and inspirational words go to www.thefemalebuddha.com

For the 2008 Naropa University graduation speech go to www.luminousbuddha.com

More Poems from Rengetsu: Touching in and Letting Go

To forget the chill of

The frozen hearth

I spend the night

Dreaming of gathering

Violets in a lush field.

 

The Japanese nun Rengetsu gathers violets in every poem she writes.  In the poem Winter Dreams she captures moments by plucking the petals of her memories one magic moment at a time.

 

To recall the verdant colors of spring in the depth of winter is an expression of faith in the seed of Buddha-nature and the lush field of our heart and mind.

 

When the Dalai Lama describes emptiness as fullness he helps us grasp the fertility of space.  The violets arise against an empty palette, fill the canvas as we gather them in a beautiful bouquet and disperse in the next sweet, sad lapse of time.

 

The evanescence of

This floating world

I feel over and over:

It is the hardest

To be the one left behind.

 

In Thirty Years After my Husband’s Death we enter into a loving sanctum as she reflects on her loss and feast in the vastness of her broken open heart. Her words dance on the razors edge of bliss and emptiness, one image a flash of ecstasy, the next of letting go.

 

 

Clad in back robes

I should have no attractions to

The shapes and scents of this world

But how can I keep my vows

Gazing at today’s crimson maple leaves?

 

Set against the autumnal blaze of the maple leaves Rengetsu’s non-attachment to the effervescent floating word is reflected in her black robe. We see through her contemplative eyes the brilliant juxtaposition of the longing of the human heart and clear awareness.

 

Who else but a poet could evoke the bounty of the void so well?  As a sky dancer her word play evokes a tango.  The seduction is so acute and the beauty so sublime. In this last poem, As a Nun Gazing at the Deep Colors of Autumn she touches in and lets go.  Touches in and lets go.    

 

(Photos by Deborah Bowman, Kyoto, Japan, 2010)

For more photos and inspirational words go to www.thefemalebuddha.com

Japanese Nun Rengetsu: A Poetic Movement of Mind


Western Kyoto temple grounds

Taking up the brush

Just for the joy of it,

Writing on and on,

Leaving behind

Long lines of dancing letters.

To escape into the world of writing is no escape.  I’m sitting in a plane about to launch for Japan reading Rengetsu’s word play.  She is one of the reasons why I endure long flights to see through the imagined eyes of another time and place.

Her five-line waka poem, The Pleasure of Calligraphy celebrates a rhythmic moment of flow, a movement of mind expressed in beauty.  She writes blissfully as ink captures the grace of nature at work in her discipline.

I write as if awkwardly learning a new language, two phrases forward and the next, scratched out.  I’m slowly learning to trust the flow of my mind: noting what thoughts pop forward, which get edited out.

The calligraphy of Rengetsu is masterful.  Her brushstrokes confident and rounded as if they were grass bending sensuously in the breeze.  Her hand is steady into her eighties.

I write in fits and starts. Pleased in the end that I’ve gotten anything coherent on paper.  Her genius is her total alignment with nature pure and direct.

She shatters my stereotype of the nun divorced from delight.  Her joy breaks all bounds as she fearlessly leaps off the page and into my heart.

The roar of the waterfall,

The howl of a

Mountain storm—

Will they shout out to me

Until morning?

In Mountain Retreat her words plunge over the abyss of my insomnia.  She implores us to pay attention to the deafening roar of our inherently wild nature.

I must listen to the terror lurking in my sleepless heart.  Rengetsu powerfully frames awakening with awe struck wonder. Here she portrays life in relentless yet captivating terms.

Her question points to our all too human fear.  Do I have the capacity?  Can I reside in the storm moment-to-moment?  Or will I contract into a dreaded future?

The choice to shout-out the beauty and the terror is ours.  In her poetic howl we can guess Rengetsu embraces the night with valor. I cannot resist her invitation to celebrate it all.

(Photos by Deborah Bowman, Kyoto, Japan, 2010)

For more photos and inspirational words go to www.thefemalebuddha.com