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

Blossom — 7 Quotes and Articles

A deep week of #14Buddha posts has wrapped up and your comments and sharings in the blog comments, across Twitter and FB have been inspiring and greatly appreciated.

#14Buddha posts will take place every other day this week.

Please do continue to share your reflections and writings that are inspired by the women writers featured here at The Female Buddha.

Did you miss a post?  Highlights and links below….

“All of the sudden I woke from my hazy reverie. This was the photographic moment!
The statue was lovely yet these few minutes brought it to life. I had almost missed it.”

— September 19th

“Here is one of my worst habits and a true confession.  I don’t exercise my photography muscle and find myself at square one every year when I go overseas to shoot in Asia, the land of amazing photo opportunities.”

September 20th

“For years after the accident I dreamt of climbing down anything and everything vertical.  My spiritual work was to come down to earth and to be in my body.”

September 21st

“She was a quirky, sad, funny and beautiful lady. She turned me on to bugs and Indian paintbrush and the smell of rain through a rusty screen door. ”

September 22nd

“Laying down and closing my eyes the sun melted my last resistance. Then hearing a birdcall, I sat up and looked across the lake where a massive cottonwood was speaking to me.”

September 23rd

“Taking the extra time for self-care can seem like an indulgence but it rights my world. A bath or a walk in the woods provides alone time in a supportive, sensual environment. Digging weeds in the garden is a great alternative.”

September 24th

“The mental computer loops through tasks while I practice coming back to my breath again and again. I always imagined I was 180 degrees different from the engineering lineage of my grandfather, father, uncles and brother…”

September 25th

This post is a part of the 14-day The Female Buddha community dialogue visual arts and writing invitation. Artist Deborah Bowman has gathered inspirational quotes from global women teachers to reflect on your life travels and creative practice.
Feel free to  reply to today’s prompt on your own blog. Share your link in the comments.
Join the dialogue on The Female Buddha page on Facebook@thefemalebuddha on Twitter and #14Buddha hashtag.

Connecting to Others: Meditation and Tonglen

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Pema Chodron

Do I spend time wondering how others are doing?  When someone sits across from me: yes.  Otherwise: usually not.

Pema Chodron’s suggestion has me wondering if this is enough.  I live a pretty whirlwind life: psychotherapist, professor, photographer, author, partner and friend.  When I’m not immersed in one of these roles my mind goes to problem solving and planning.

Sitting on the cushion in meditation I notice my designing thoughts fashioning syllabi, gardens, page layouts, budgets, retirement, interventions, trips, counseling centers, paragraphs, presentations, emails, household chores, ad infinitum.

The mental computer loops through tasks while I practice coming back to my breath again and again.  I always imagined I was 180 degrees different from the engineering lineage of my grandfather, father, uncles and brother.  Yet nonstop I engineer superhighways of the mind to accomplish tasks at higher and riskier speeds.

Do I wonder how my actions affect other people’s hearts?  All the strategic thoughts are seamlessly connected to actions. But are they genuinely connected to others?  In the abstract: yes.

My bigger endeavors have given hundreds of students a stellar education in transpersonal psychology.  I’ve initiated or designed several successful counseling programs at Naropa University.  Those tasks occupied large tracks of cerebral space for years.

Now authoring books occupies the dominant parcel of mental real estate. I want to share inspirational images and quotes of women from around the world.  Blogging about the process helps me feel more connected to my audience and other authors.

The practice of tonglen helps me move from the abstract to the personal. It’s a structured exercise in Tibetan Buddhism to breath in the pain of others and then breath out an offering of compassion and relief.  Pema speaks of it as a natural process we’ve lost touch with in our hurly-burly lives, something a big open heart does without thinking.

Tonglen reminds me to deliberately consider family members, friends and colleagues; especially anyone who is suffering or someone I’m having trouble with. I’d like to embody the process a little more off the cushion and in my daily ruminations towards others and myself.

Setting the intention is the first step.  Over and over I see a line of progress when I begin with a straightforward question and an open heart.  No beating myself up, simply breathing in the pain and starting fresh again.

How about you?  Where is your mind wondering?  Where could you use a little compassionate relief?

The Treasure Within: Reflections on No River to Cross


“Spiritual practice means having faith that there is a great treasure within your mind, and then finding it.  Learning to discover the treasure within you is the most worthwhile thing in the world.  If you can put this into practice, you can live freshly, with a mind open like the sky, always overflowing with compassion.  What could be better than this?”

– Daehaeng Sunim

Blogging last week I shared about discovering images of the female Buddha in Vietnam.  This week I want to share my encounter with the female Buddha inside the pages of a book by an astounding Korean Zen master, Daehaeng Sunim.

I discovered her googling: women, Buddhism and Asia. I was looking for quotes by genuine women teachers from the countries where I was photographing the female deity of compassion, Guanyin.

To my delight, the book, No River to Cross, popped up on my screen thanks to the translation of her work by Robert Buswell of UCLA.  If you’re a Buddhist, a feminist or enthralled by a good adventure story this is a must read.

For the adventurous in spirit, her tale unfolds on both outer and inner levels.  First we read about her life in the woods from age six after her family home is destroyed and they are forced to hide in exile from the Japanese occupation.

Also escaping her father’s rages, Sunim begins to meander farther and farther from the rudimentary hut her parents construct in the forest.  She sleeps on the ground and eats grass to fill her stomach. More than once she narrowly escapes death in the dark of night when she intuitively stops herself from walking over the edges of cliffs.

Over the next several years her isolated wanderings become the setting for extraordinary transpersonal experiences.  Sunim connects to a universal father and experiences an overwhelming sense of love and wholeness.  She later comes to understand this loving figure as symbolic of the basic goodness within us all.

A lifetime pursuit of questioning began during her early years of transience.  Her quest became more refined when she encountered a friendly monk who offers her food and guidance.  It is only later that she discovers he is the most venerated teacher in Korea and has the opportunity to formally receive him as her spiritual guide.

After committing to the rigorous training to become a nun, Sunim throws it off for something more difficult, twelve additional years of solitary wandering working with the questions arising in her heart.  Later she returns to complete her training astounding her teachers with a treasury of understanding.

The amazing details of her story are only a small part of No River to Cross.  Even better yet are the wise and celebratory reflections she offers in her teachings. I’ve passed this book to Buddhist colleagues who are thrilled to discover a new and passionate voice.  My mystic Christian friends resonate with the accessibility of her insight.

For the first time in the history of Korea, monks are becoming the students of a nun, Daehaeng Sunim.  Twenty-five centers of study have sprung from the organization she founded over thirty years ago.  Her clarity resonates with scholars and lay people alike.

“Just get rid of ignorance and delusions, and you will know that you are a Buddha and that you are already complete as you are.  If you awaken to this, you will burst out laughing at how much effort you spent in order for you to become yourself.  This is the laughter of peace and joy.”

-Daehaeng Sunim