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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Poetry of Women Chinese Chan Masters: Ziyong

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I still recall, how with my bag on a pole,

I forgot my yesterdays,

Wandering the hills, played in the waters,

went to the land of the clouds.

The lift of an eyebrow, the blink of an eye–

all of it is samadhi;

In this great world there is nowhere that is

not a wisdom hall.

Ziyong

I took this photo at the monastic center of the Luminary Order of nuns in Taipei on the first day I arrived in the country.  This order has been described by American scholars as a “quiet” feminist center of activity.  During the five days I spent in Taiwan they guided me to sites where miracles occurred at or near Guanyin statues.      You can read more about the rise of Guanyin East and West in my new article in elephant journal on Celebrating the Divine Feminine.

The poet Ziyong was a Chinese Buddhist nun in the 18th century and an exceptional poet.  This poem was written on her year off from intense practice, teaching and administrative duties as the abbess of numerous monastic sites.  During her time off she wandered the countryside and mountains as her poem suggests.

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Last weekend a gathering of 12 women joined me in contemplating other poems and verses of the wise women of the Buddhist tradition.  We meditated, made art and shared tender stories of our own struggles, insights and awakenings.  The time together at this Female Buddha workshop was declared “Transformational!”  Please stay in touch for the next workshop announcement at http://www.thefemalebuddha.com.

Books available at www.thefemalebuddha.com or www.amazon.com

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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

Photos of Guanyin at the Bangkok Flower Market

Making Lotus Bouquets Making Lotus Bud Bouquets

These photos were taken in Bangkok at the Flower and Produce Market.  I was working on a project to photograph images of Guanyin and happened on this lovely setting while searching for temple sites.  I felt as if I had encountered Guanyin embodied!

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Purple and Yellow Flowers

Altar Decorations

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Making Altar Arrangements

Woman Making Altar Bouquets

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Loading Truck with Flower Arrangement

      Sending Floral Arrangements to the Temple


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Contemplating the Buddha at the Market

          Buddha at the Produce Market

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Two women stringing flowers


              Stringing Flowers for the Temple 

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All the delightful things of the world–sweet sounds, lovely forms, all the pleasant tastes and touches and thoughts–these are all agreed to bring happiness if they are not grasped and possessed.

But if you regard them merely as pleasures for your own use and satisfaction and do not see them as passing wonders, they will bring suffering.

Be aware of the paradox, for if you are blind to the way things are you will not be able to make out anything, even though you might be right on t0p of it.

The teaching about the way things are is not a way to enlightenment for someone who is still fill with desires or who still longs to be a this or a that.  But those who do understand it will become beings of distinction, dispersing all the forces of confusion.

The Buddha

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More inspirational words and photos at

Photos of Temple Life in Burma

Old Monk in MandalayMonk at Teak Temple

 Italian designed eight sided temple, Mandalay

These are just a few of the people we encountered visiting the temples of Mandalay and the surrounding towns in Burma.  The elder monk above guided us through an abandoned temple and showed us where the altars and Buddha statues used to sit.  He smoked a large cigar and folded it into his robes when I asked to take his photograph. 

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Woman ringing bell

Woman ringing Burmese Gong, Kuthodaw Paya (temple), Mandalay

This woman was demonstrating how to ring a traditional Burmese gong and sold us a smaller version after much haggling.  Her original prices were twice what we discovered on the streets  so we were happy to have engaged in   friendly haggling over the gongs.

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Children visiting temple

Young girls visiting a temple, Kuthodaw Paya (temple), Mandalay

These young students were on a field trip from the surrounding villages and flocked around us to see and touch a foreigner.  Their smiles and giggles were infectious and we found ourselves inundated by twenty or thirty at a time.  They wanted us to take their pictures and often expressed a mixture of delight and embarrassment when I snapped a shot.  

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Women Praying

      Women Praying, Mahamuni Paya (temple), Mandalay

This famous temple receives thousands of visitors who come to venerate the famous Mahamuni Buddha image that is believed to have been caste in the 1st century AD.  Only the men are allowed to walk up to the image and apply gold leaf that is now more than six inches thick on the statue. The women gather to worship in front of the Buddha.

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Young Boys in Costume

          Young Boys in Temple Ceremony,

         Mahamuni Paya (temple), Mandalay

These boys stand in line waiting for the procession to begin where they will be “king for the day”.  This Buddhist initiation ceremony occurs once a year and is a once in a lifetime opportunity for both girls and boys.  When we first asked a bystander about the procession where an adult holds an umbrella over the head of each child, he pointed to a girl and said she was “queen for the day”.  I put my hand to my heart to express the specialness of the occasion yet couldn’t stop my mind from the association to the TV show of my childhood era where women were crowned “queen for the day”.  What a different experience! 

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Young people in costume


              Preparing for Temple Procession, 

                                              Mahamuni Paya (temple), Mandalay

These young people pose for a group photo before they join the processional walk around the temple.  Unlike the children we met everywhere we went they held back their smiles for the seriousness of the event.  I am so thankful we stumbled on this ceremony and just wish I could say more about its meaning and origin. 

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Nun studying for exam

Nun Studying for Exam, Samaidodaya Recluse, Sagaing

This beautiful nun was the attendant for the head abbess of a monastery for approximately 250 women.  While we visited and had tea with the elder abbess the young woman studied for an important exam she would take the next day at a Buddhist university.  Her studies included English and she was able to share at bit of her knowledge of the challenging Buddhist philosophy she was preparing to be tested on.  

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Whenever you have friendliness to yourself, then friendliness to your world happens simultaneously.  As natural goodness begins to dawn in your heart, and a sense of dignity begins to occur.  The more you open yourself up to this process, the more you find that the world extends its hospitality for you to proclaim your dignity.

Cynthia Kneen, Awake Mind, Open Heart

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More inspirational words and photos at

Photographing Nuns Making History in Thailand

Venerable Dhammananda

Brave or rude?  I learned from an Italian to get up close and uncomfortable for a really good photo of a monk or nun.  Massimo Bassano’s stunning shots for National Geographic are a testament to his fearless approach.

In Italy I also learned to not hesitate crossing a busy street.  Boldness counts in photography as well.  She who waits gets stuck in traffic or misses the perfect light before the Bhikkhuni (nun) lowers her gaze.

An hour west of Bangkok, at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, I captured shots of the sisters raking leaves, felling dead trees and sitting quietly in meditation.  While some of the younger ones acted camera shy, the older nuns were content to ignore my intrusions.

Even with permission to shoot the stillness of contemplative practice or chanting I needed to be more sensitive to their needs for concentration.  A few clicks of the shutter may have been fine.  My zealous barrage was too much.

As the youngest daughter in my family the sweet smile and fade into the woodwork was my strategic coping style.  As a photographer and woman of words it is a bane.

One of the principle reasons I’ve sought out Venerable Dhammananda and her order of nuns is their big, bold assertion living as Bhikkhunis in a country where it’s considered illegal to be ordained as a woman in the Buddhist Theravada tradition.

Despite the extreme misogyny of the times, the Buddha accepted women into the religious community of devoted practitioners over 2500 years ago.  Today the Theravada order in Thailand excludes women as ordained nuns on questionable technicalities.  Buddha’s understanding and nurturance of women’s equal spiritual capacity became lost in centuries of entrenched male autocratic rule.

Venerable Dhammananda is secure in her understanding of the Buddhist faith and women’s necessary leadership role in practicing and teaching the truth of the path.  Her confidence is followed by a rain of blessings to rebuild the women’s monastic tradition in Thailand from the ground up.

My confidence in sharing the beauty of their work fuels the bravery I need to get in there like a true photojournalist.  The delicacy of how much and when is a practice of mindfulness in staying ever vigilant to the changing needs of the moment.

morning alms gathering

On the last morning of my stay I was honored to accompany the Bhikkhunis gathering alms as they solemnly walked in the dawning light of the morning.

In Laos I was touched by this ancient practice while photographing local men and women offering rice into the bowls of monks.  This time I walked with the sisters and felt an exquisite tenderness in the deep spiritual exchange between lay and monastic practitioners.

The tasks of adjusting my camera settings in the increasing light of the morning kept the welling tears in my eyes from dripping on the equipment.  The job to stay focused is a crucial practice.  The world needs to witness the contributions these women offer the world.

woman offering alms to nuns

The alms round are still a significant tradition in several Asian countries.  The nuns also organize social welfare in the community and provide learning opportunities for an increasing number of spiritually aspiring women from around the world.

My own training in Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practice helps me appreciate the joy of capturing an ephemeral moment with the click of the camera.  Many nuns of Japan and China also captured the delight of the passing moment in the contemplative art of poetry.

So too, the camera frames the sweet and sad moment as it rises and passes away.  I’m trained as a Buddhist practitioner to notice and let go.  The ordinary moment appears so extraordinary and once again ordinary.  Then it’s gone!

Providence and pluck have placed me in situations such as my brief three-day stay at the only women’s monastery in Thailand.  In Buddhism we understand these factors as causes and conditions meeting to create a vivid opportunity.

I am grateful for the ripened conditions to encounter and record women making history at the leading edge of Buddhist culture today.  Their motive mirrors my own: to reach fearlessly toward liberation with humility and compassion.  I am happy to learn as I stumble along.

nuns offering work service

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