Things Loosely Strung

Things Loosely Strung


On the island of Elephanta in the Arabian Sea not far from Mumbai, in a Shiva cave temple carved out from a rock hill, is a Shiva ling almost eighteen feet high with three faces. The right face (left to the viewer) is Aghora-Bhairav, the angry, the terrible. He is holding a serpent. The left (right to the viewer) is Vamadeva-Uma, Shiva’s female energy, beautiful and blissful. She is holding a lotus. Tatpurusha Mahadeva, the peaceful, the abiding, holds the middle.


The Portuguese used the cave for cannon practice. They targeted Shiva reliefs in mythic scenes in the cave, but they honored the trinitarian semblance and left it whole. They perhaps did not recognize that the faces emerge from a linga, Shiva’s mystical phallus.


Like the primordial Adam Qadmon of Zohar, the sculpture mirrors psychocosmic moods of rage, love and peace. Adam’s man shape, his red right hand of power, the white left of love, his green trunk of balance, pour from the creative unknowable above. Shiva’s faces display from the creative unknowable within.


Like time revolving, the faces shape the linga, the mark, the sign, the subtle trace of mystery, its hiddenness. On the back side and top are more secret faces unseen.


The poet of the Atharva Veda hymn to “Skambha,” the secret pillar, sings, Through meditation, by direct vision, I have known this: in the secret pillar lies the whole world. He describes elements, regions, energies, ages, natures, names and deities as branches on a tree.


In the Indian mythology of time, it is the Age of Kali now, the Age of Rage, the Age of Fear, the end of a cycle, a time of injustice and destruction. The mystic Adam’s red right hand of judgment is active. Shiva Bhairav’s eyes bulge with rage. Shiva Tatpurusha remains at peace. Uma remains beautiful. Adam’s left hand of love does not disappear, and Tif’eret, his balanced center, embraces Shekhinah, his immanence. In Lurianic Kabbalah, You can mend the cosmos by anything you do, even eating…Sparks of holiness intermingle with everything in the world.


Shiva is Lord of Destruction, Lord of Yoga, Lord of Dance. He destroys illusion and ignorance. In the bronzes of Tamil Nadu he dances in a ring of fire on the demon of forgetfulness. His body—left leg bent across the right, left arm curved over the bent leg, right hand gesturing the “no problem” mudra—forms the shape of OM, Tatpurusha’s mystic sound. Shiva’s drum is the sound of monsoon thunder circling the horizon, bringing fertility and destruction while his feet drum the earth. It is the sound of the pulse of life, Earth’s heart, the heart of the mother heard in the womb when one is preparing to be born into the world.


The name Shiva means “auspicious.” It is auspicious to acknowledge fear. Proverbs teaches,  Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


In the Bhagavad Gita the primordial guru, the inner teacher, manifests as Krishna. It is a time of destruction, the end of a cycle. He teaches the stressed hero Arjuna the yogas of knowledge, action and devotion, connecting to what abides. Whenever dharma wanes and injustice grows, he manifests himself. He is an avatar of Vishnu, Lord of Preservation, a balance between Brahma Lord of Creation and Shiva Lord of Destruction. Practicing the yoga of action, Arjuna is to give the fruit of his deeds as a warrior to Krishna, not attach to them himself.


Abhinavagupta, a Shaivite tantric philosopher of tenth century Kashmir, comments on the Natyashastra, the classic Indian text on dance, theater and poetics. The focus is on bhavas, perennial emotional energies latent in the heart. Among these are delight, gaiety and wonder on the one hand, anger, grief, fear and disquiet on the other, and heroism and serenity. (Abhinavagupta added the ninth, serenity, to the classic eight.) Each of these latent energies manifests in a rasa, a mood or emotional coloring felt in the heart. A rasa tinges the inmost person with its color. Abhinavagupta says that our hearts, aroused through rasas portrayed in art, flash forth through these emotional colors and become sahrydaya, same-hearted, in an empathetic community of emotion that brings heightened awareness. There is a direct knowing of things as they are, not as a subject knows an object, but directly in our all-connecting hearts. The deep nature of the heart, the thread of clear light, shines through the conglomeration of loosely strung semi-transparent jewels,…the emotions that tint it with their hues.


There is, says Abhinavagupta, a perpetual scintillation that has its abode in the heart. It is covered over by the darkness of our mental and emotional conflicts. Aesthetic experience can arouse a vibration that breaks through this darkness, opening a space for peace to manifest.


Abhinavagupta’s Kashmiri school began in the ninth century when Sage Vasugupta had a dream. Shiva instructed him to go to Mahadeva Mountain and touch a certain stone. The Shiva Sutras, 79 aphorisms, manifested out of the stone. Tantric texts often appear this way, like projections of knowledge hidden in the heart of things and suddenly ready to be known. From the stirring touch of mind in the heart, there is spiritual vision…, says one of the sutras.


In Buddhist tantra, art is a practice of the perfection of generosity. Thoughts, images and feelings, in their provocative coming and going, are elusive. They emerge before words, melodies, rhythms or designs pin them down. Art manifests shared experience in oneself and others. It helps us glimpse the communality of all things. It helps us taste the “one taste,”  the underlying clarity, wisdom and compassion in the spiritual heart.


According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, when our last breath leaves our body, if we have not recognized the pure luminosity of mind in the bardo of dying, we enter the bardo of luminosity. There the full spectrum of our latent mental energies manifests as a sequence of peaceful deities. If we become afraid and do not recognize them as our own projections, these energies become increasingly terrible, transforming into wrathful deities. If we recognize them as our projections, they transform into wisdom.


Dream yoga practitioners on the threshold of the dream bardo can follow vague thoughts from the bardo of this life as they continue into dream like inserting thread through the eye of a needle. They can change peaceful and wrathful appearances into each other, cultivating meditative equipoise, in clarity without grasping.


Samkhya, a theoretical counterpart to classic non-Buddhist Yoga, pictures our emotional energies, our bhavas, as dwelling in our subtle body, our linga, our subtle trace that transmigrates from life to life. The linga is the active force in the liberation of consciousness, which does not act. Each consciousness or purusha liberates separately from the undulating energy of nature, prakriti, into kaivalya, blissful awareness. Until then, the purusha identifies itself with the linga, with its emotions and its suffering. Nature and consciousness, prakriti and purusha, are not oppositional—they are in samyoga, interlinked uncreated eternal principles. Nature performs and evolves for the liberation of consciousness.


Buddhist insight argues against Samkhya’s subtle duality of nature and consciousness: both are empty of their own being, they have only relative interdependent reality, they are of the same nature, neither has ultimate reality, both are projected views. They are inseparable aspects of very subtle clear light-bearing mind, which is the morally clear basis of enlightenment and altruistic enlightened action, ordinarily clouded by our mental and emotional afflictions and distorted by our imposition of subject-object duality. Nirvana and samsara, buddha mind and ordinary mind, perceiver and perceived are not separable from one another, they are of one nature, one taste.


Sometimes I wake in the night full of fear. All the alarms of the world seem to go off in my mind—the Age of Kali rampant in the bardo of this life. I am not aware of a particular triggering event or dream. The fear feels existential, the details fed by politics and the troubles of those dear to me. I cling to the fear, and the fear clings to me. Then at some point I awake into first light and the bardo of this life. I wash, light a candle, offer incense, ring a bell and enter the bardo of meditation. All these layers of study and thought, like the fears that awoke me, like the loves that sustain me, are inseparable from quietude.

The Garden Dream and the Teaching Garden

 [Please scroll down for 2 more reflections: "The story of my orientation by water" and "A talk to myself when crisis in the life bardo grips my mind."]

I live in exurbia, in a townhouse in Northern Westchester. It is a beautiful area, with lots of trees and rolling hills and rivers and rock formations. In gardening season, I enjoy a twelve by twelve foot plot in a community garden run by the local Lewisboro Garden Club. I am not very diligent in tending it, since it is a twenty minute drive from my house. I have some success with green beans and zinnia.

            I dream of having a kitchen garden of my own. Why do I have this dream? It’s questionable whether I would find myself devoting to it the care it would require. My days are filled with meditation, reading, writing, yoga, walking in the woods, teaching and adoring my grandchildren. A garden needs to be tended.  It is suitably a metaphor for oneself and one’s world, weeds, bugs, blights, weathers and all.

            I have beautiful pictures of my maternal grandmother and my mother in their gardens. There are annuals and perennials, flowers and vegetables. My grandmother came from Hueffenhardt, a village in the Schwarzwald near Heidelberg, and my relatives there tend a wonderful household garden, including berries and fruit trees. My mother had a plot in a community garden across the street from our house in a suburb of Milwaukee. Bringing corn, beans and salads home, she used to run across the street so as to arrive with the full energy of their freshness.

            My father grew up on a grape farm in Fredonia in upstate New York. He built a kitchen garden for his mother. She died before I was born, so I never saw it as it was tended by her. Her family were florists and ran a greenhouse. She kept a Garden Club book in which she wrote down poems such as “Resurrection by W.D.Woodward:

When leaves go into mourning

            For the dying of the year,

They never clothe themselves in black,

            Nor sorrowful appear.

But like some happy children

            Exchanging work for play,

They dance and swirl, they prance and whirl,

            The gayest of the gay.


They seem to write this lesson

            On nature’s brilliant page.

We’ve done our duty truly,

            Why should we mourn at age?

There comes a resurrection

            In the springtime by and by,

When from our sleep again we’ll peep,

            And lift our heads on high.


            In 1821, before her family came over from Germany, the first natural gas well in the US, 27 feet deep, had been drilled in Fredonia near a “burning spring.” The first American natural gas company wasincorporated there in 1858. After my grandfather died, the grape farm wassubdivided for residential construction. Meanwhile Fredonia was expanding as a campus of the State University of New York.


            These threads—energy development, loss of farmlands, growth of higher education—have stitched their way across this country. From an early age, I had dreams of woodlands and fields being mowed down by fast-moving machines. I wept at my powerlessness as natural beauty was forced to give way. But as an adult, my focus became academic and urban, at some distance from the spiritual, symbolic, poetic kitchen garden world of my foremothers.

            As we raised our children, my husband and I bought a suburban house with a few wooded acres. He planted and tended a rose garden while I kept a salad and herb garden.  He tended his rose garden using toxic sprays to kill bugs and mildews, and made sweet bouquets for us to enjoy. Deer and lyme ticks began to take over. My husband died prematurely, the children became adults, and I moved to a low-maintenance townhouse. Now in my old age,  grandparenthood and environmental concerns have reawakened the garden dream. I joined the community garden because I wanted my granddaughters to learn how things grow, to learn the heritage of the mother line.

            Environmental concerns with a view to the coming generations led to my developing a course called Spirituality & Nature at SUNY Purchase College, where I teach.  Included in the course are documentaries and books on environmental issues. We particularly engage in food and water issues. This has led to a project of establishing a sustainable gardening course and a forty by fifty foot campus garden. It turns out that quite a few students, faculty and administrators have garden dreams, though few of us have the skills or wherewithal to implement them. Also most students and faculty are not there in the summer, the principle growing season, which is why previous student efforts to establish a garden have lost steam. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is in our neighborhood, and the four seasons grower there, Jack Algiere, has helped us find a campus gardener to set up and maintain the garden and teach Spring, Summer and Fall semester gardening courses. The hope is that the garden and the courses will make a meaningful contribution to campus life and to the surrounding community. It remains to be seen how this will work.

            I am, it must be admitted, habituated to a traditional humanistic academic focus on thought and words, rather than hands-on action. My field is Religious Studies and Philosophy. Even as I have come to believe in and teach the importance of environmental action, I find myself thinking more than acting. I have increasingly turned to Buddhist teachings and practices, in part as a pragmatic approach to questioning my habits of thought and feeling. Am I nostalgically attached to a romantic memory of the way things once were? Also to melancholy and fear that the way things are now can’t be remedied in this life? Also to an introspective proclivity that the lost garden exists only in my mind?  There was, when I was young, a romantic sense that America was beautiful, with spacious skies and fruited plains. Now I am not alone in being fixated with anger and horror at scenes of fracking and mineral extraction, taking off whole mountaintops, polluting rivers. Actually these horrors were already going on when I was younger, but I was unaware. This is the way things are.

            Sitting under the Bodhi tree, Buddha found a practice of mind that penetrates into its habitual attachments, illusions, dichotomies, inner conflicts, thoughts and emotions, to identify and liberate the causes of our mental sufferings. He looked realistically at the way things are. Although we try to think of them as otherwise, things, both external and internal, are not lasting. They are not independent but dynamically relative to one another. In his awakening, he experienced that freedom is not separate from the wheel of life, that nirvana is not separate from samsara, for both are equally empty of any solid reality, any fixed being of their own. He touched the Earth as witness that he had gone beyond the transient desires and aversions on which his illusory sense of self habitually fixated.  

            His model of non-violent insight and engagement applies particularly well as species, cultures and habitats are lost or poisoned in the onslaught of environmental, political and economic violence. The purpose of his teaching and practice, especially in its Great Vehicle version, is not to escape, but to touch the Earth as witness of a presence of mind awakened from extremes of longing and rage, romantic dream and nightmare.

            My husband wrote his doctoral dissertation on Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and “Hortus,” on Marvell’s wit in interplaying Epicurean hedonist and neo-Platonic spiritual conceits with the experiential lushness of the mind’s self-retreat in a garden, “annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade.” The poems celebrate a garden of solitude in reclusion from the commotions of human society. He later became a teacher of Milton and Paradise Lost, in which the Angel, having revealed to Adam God’s plan for man’s salvation, tells him, “thou…shalt possess / a paradise within thee, happier far.” This garden-paradise archetype in the mind is a peaceful and pleasurable solitary retreat, a place of contemplation, an enclosed wholeness and sacred inner space, a paradise within, from which we have been physically expelled. This cultural heritage is an aspect of my dream garden, part of a tendency to imagine a paradise, and also nirvana, as a locus rather than a dynamic presence.

            In a physical garden, with its work, sensations, seasons and difficulties, I learn of my kinship and interrelationship with all beings, from worms and microbes to fellow humans across the planet to the dusts of stars.  I learn of the cycles of life and death and the return of life, as in my grandma’s “Resurrection” poem. I become prepared for death, for my ashes or bones to be returned to the earthly ground. Perhaps my urge to engage with a teaching garden as I age is a preparation for my return to earth. It is my honoring of a legacy of mothers and nurturers and teachers since first they saved and planted seeds of food and contemplation, harvesting the nourishment in their cycles of resurrection.


The story of my orientation by water


           I was born halfway between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. I used to walk my dog alternately to one or the other. In the park by the river, I let her loose. One day she took off after a rabbit and was killed by a car. I was maybe eleven years old. Around the same time, my maternal grandfather died.

            After that I was more inclined to go to the lake. It was vast and gray, tempered by wind, storm and light. I stood on the bluff overlooking its reach toward another shore that could not be seen, though it always seemed it might appear on the clearest day. Michigan was over there, where my grandmother lived and my grandfather died, my grandmother who, as a child, had travelled by boat down the Rhine from Swabia and across the sea, then by rail to Michigan.

            I walked down the winding path to the narrow beach and collected smooth stones, smoothed bits of colored glass, smoothed shells and bones. Each of these was shiny from its water bath. As it dried, its smoothness continued to suggest some kind of peacefulness that came from proximity to water.

            I still have on my desk the Lake Michigan stones I gathered years later, when I was thirty-eight and my father was dying.

            There was a time in my early teens—I was a sophomore in high school—when the vastness of the universe preoccupied my mind and put me in a state of severe dread. I could not understand how people carried on, why they were not overwhelmed by extreme disorientation. Then, for no clearer reason than why my earthly orientation left, it reappeared.

            The year after my cosmic dismay I developed a philosophical certainty that everything is made of interflowing vibrations. I invited my friends over to consider this.



*     *     *



            When I lived in Milwaukee, I could tell which direction was East by remembering where the lake was. I am still oriented by water. Here it is the Croton Watershed streams and rivers as they flow into the Hudson and on to New York harbor and the ocean, or to the city through the Croton aqueduct. There it was the Milwaukee River Watershed flowing into Lake Michigan in the St. Lawrence River Watershed which also opens into the ocean, on whose farther shore is Europe and the Rhineland watershed of my forebears.

            As a child, I had nightmares of forests being cut down and earth drying up, stone-lined pavements replacing waterways. When I lived in Manhattan in my twenties, which was in the 1960s, I had recurring dreams of a great wave immersing the city. I could see its liquid wall moving toward me from my ninth floor window. My daughter had the same dream there. Now, in our new millennium, droughts, extreme storms and the rise of oceans increasingly threaten. Katrina came to New Orleans, Sandy to New York, drought to California. The focus of my dread and grief is now here on Earth, the future beyond me. This time the dread and grief will not go away, and it is not mine alone. It is a great wave of feeling.




*     *     *



            My husband died suddenly on the day before Palm Sunday, 1992. That night, as I lay in my bed emptied of him, half of my person deprived of its physical shell, I felt a massive wheeling of astronomical forces, galaxies spinning and churning my loss of ground. In the morning, dawn happened as on an ordinary day. It was the beginning of Holy Week.

            On Monday we visited his body before it was to be cremated. I did not know whether he would wish his ashes to be buried or scattered. His parents, still alive, had a plot in a cemetery in Milwaukee, and it seemed right for him to be buried there, for his place to be marked. He was sealed in a stone box to keep water and worms out under the premise of Christian resurrection, which had impacted on the timing of his death and our mourning. It was our heritage, in which we had been raised. Since his death I have, bit by bit, become Buddhist.

            Every summer I make a pilgrimage back to Wisconsin. I visit my brother and the lakes and the rivers. I rarely visit the cemetery. My husband’s parents are also buried there now. His sister was scattered in the Pacific. My parents gave their bodies to science and had no burials. My grandparents were buried in Michigan. I tried to visit their graves once, but was unable to find them.

            As I remember these loved ones, I am visited with waves of feeling, waves of love and fear that flow toward the future and my children and grandchildren and their children not yet born.



*     *     *



            My father was a hydraulic engineer who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. He specialized in flood control. In the late forties, when I was eight, he was assigned to work on the St. Lawrence Seaway Project. For a year we lived in Boston. Since Congress hadn’t agreed on the funding, he had nothing to do. He got tired of waiting and quit working for the government. We moved back to Milwaukee, where he became a builder, first of houses, then of corporate centers for insurance companies.

            Eventually the Seaway Project went through. After that alewives died and washed up in stinking windrows on Milwaukee’s beaches. They had entered the lakes through the opening of canals by-passing Niagara Falls. The top alewife predator, lake trout, had been wiped out by overfishing and the invasion of sea lamprey. Alewives are not designed for Lake Michigan’s cold waters. They stress and die coming out of winter, when they head into spawning season. Coho and Chinook salmon were stocked as non-native alewife predators and gamefish.

            Although our neighbor Bill Coblentz had developed Parkinson’s disease, one of the things he could still do and liked to do was fish from the jetties. He caught a lot of Coho salmon, big fish that gleamed with the silvery grays of the waters, their scales like the light on small ripples. He was part Native American, and could sit still for hours, attentive to the water.




*      *      *



            The route from the Atlantic Ocean, the “Great Salt Water,” up the St. Lawrence River, through Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron to Lake Superior is the route of a sacred migration journey the Anishinaabe people’s ancestors made over a period of about 500 years, beginning in 900 CE. According to their medicine teachings, a luminous Megis Shell arose from the waters to guide them. The Megis was the shell through which the Great Spirit blew breath into the four sacred elements. Then Nokomis, spirit Grandmother, bore lifeforms, joining physical body and soul-spirit.

            My grandchildren Gabriel, Ivan and Inara’s Anishinaabe father lives on Madeline Island in Lake Superior. The island was the final destination of the migration, where the Megis settled its abode. In the Big Bay lagoon there, the water is very clear, gold and amber in sunlight. Breezes ripple the surface and green underwater grasses bend in the current that flows toward the lake, articulating the sandy bottom. I like to canoe there, and Gabe likes to fish. Sitting very still in the bow, he observes the patterns of fish movement, where fish feed, the schools and the loners. Suddenly there’s a flurry of action, he pulls his line in and a big northern pike is jumping at his feet.

            The Great Lakes hold 20% of the planet’s fresh water. They and their fish and the waterways of their regions are endangered by iron mining, frac sand mining, crude oil by rail, industrial and agricultural run off and CAFO waste.



*     *     *



            When I was a teenager water was my element. I did water ballet, distance swimming and canoeing with the same unquestioned necessity with which now I do seated meditation, yoga and daily walks. I went on and led Girl Scout canoe trips in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with the same unquestioned necessity with which I now travel to India and lead school trips to Dharamsala in the Himalayas. There we dip in glacial waters that stream into the Beas River and flow on to the Sutlej, Chenab, Panjnada and Indus, and on into the Arabian Sea. I collect stones smoothed by the rushing streams. They too are on my desk, along with a stone I bought from a monk who inscribed it with the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, “the jewel in the lotus,” the lotus also called “mud-born,” rooted in earth, rising through water, to open in the sunlit air above—a symbol of the earth-born mind, its watery support and luminous flowering. It is embedded with the jewel of compassion.

            The sound of waves may be the original mantra, the OM of the womb waters and of our 70% water composition, and the OM of the ocean covering 70% of the Earth. A human, when conceived in a fertilized egg, is 96% water, and a baby at birth is 80% water. A newborn continues to remember the womb sound as it orients itself in its new world. It brings to mind the underwater songs of dolphins and whales, of whale mother and child. It brings to mind too the sonograms of my grandchildren in the waters of my daughters’ wombs.

            Grandmother whales have been found to lead their families toward food in times of food shortage. They have in their memories a repertoire of ways to survive. Their purpose is not for themselves alone. It is as if they know that life is given for each part to help in the life of the whole, that they are ecologically and archetypally vital on the living Earth and in living minds. I have much to learn from these exemplary mammalian mothers and grandmothers.



*     *     *



            When Buddha became enlightened, the Earth goddess Vasudha wrung water from her long hair to bear witness. Rivers are the veins and channels of Her body. From Lake Anavatapta, “Not Heated,” beside Mount Meru at the center of the world, flow four purifying rivers: Ganges, Indus, Oxus, and Yellow. The lake’s waters cool the fires that torment us. “Everything is burning with the fires of desire, hate, delusion, with birth, aging, dying, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, griefs and hopelessness.” The lake’s waters come from the mouth of a dragon king who heard Buddha’s teachings and became free of his burning. It was 2500 years ago when Buddha spoke of the burning.

            Anavatapta is one of eight great dragon kings who assemble to hear Buddha’s teachings in the Lotus Sutra. Different kinds of lightning come from dragons’ claws and mouth and their writhing in clouds, thunder is their roar, and rains fall from their gleaming scales. Serpents, nagas, are their subterranean counterparts. They guard treasures and concealed teachings, and avenge disrespect for their environments. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna entered their world to receive the slippery teaching of the interdependence of all things, their emptiness of separate being.

            For Tibetans Mt. Meru’s earthly manifestation is Mt. Kailash, with the earthly lake Mansarovar, the Lake of Mind, beside it. The earthly Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Ganges with its tributaries are sourced near this center at the western end of the Tibetan plateau. They water Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse and Yellow rivers are sourced from the plateau further east and water Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. Michael Buckley, in his book Meltdown in Tibet and related video documentaries, details the escalating affects of global warming, black soot from fuels burned in China and India, and Chinese river-damming, water diversion projects and mining, endangering the glaciers and the fragile ecosystem of the plateau and the water supply for all these Asian countries. Because of the potential global impact of its glacial melt, Tibet has been called the third pole.

            Buddha taught meditation practices for observing the mind’s stream of thoughts and emotions, for experiencing the luminous spaciousness and energy of consciousness through which they come and go, for cooling the mental fires that drive our patterns of ignorance, denial and suffering.

            Hermann Hesse grew up in Calw in Swabia in the Rhine River watershed near where my maternal grandmother was born. His character Siddhartha does not follow Buddha. He takes a river as his guru. The river opens his awareness of the flowing mental world, the river of consciousness, the moods riled and calm, the recycling through clouds and precipitation. He learns how his changing suffering mind, his samsaric mind, is not separate from nirvana, mind awake and clear. This thought is ungraspable, like trying to hold water.

            Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan healer, calls the eyes the “water light doors” of inner light. He teaches a practice that, through the channels of the eyes, connects the inner luminous space of the heart with the external luminous space of the sky. He describes visions called the “fish of the rays in movement” that move like a fish moves in waves of water, and teaches how to catch the fish in the net of darkness with the dart of presence. The luminous space of the mind generates energetic waves, a rainbow spectrum. He tells how mind begins to enter samsara when it physicalizes, solidifies and constricts its attention and forgets to maintain awareness of its spacious luminous nature.

            I am moved by Tibetan teachers who are able to liberate their grief and anger at the genocide and ecocide in Tibet, to energize their compassionate engagement with our samsaric minds and suffering world.



*     *     *



            Spiritual healers around the world picture subtle energy channels, counterparts to the fluid channels in living beings and in the Earth as a whole and region by region. For healing, for purification of harm and grief, both must be tended, both must be seen.

            The African healer Malidoma Some tells of being healed and learning to heal through the help of his mother’s brother, his “male mother…who ‘carries water,’ the energy of peace, quiet, reconciliation, and healing.” He writes of this learning as being “liquid, living, breathing, flexible,” in contrast to the inflexibility of the colonial education that had been imposed on him.

            The spiritual leaders of the Kogi people of Colombia speak of sensing both the physical rocks, plants, animals and rivers of their watershed, and also the spirit rocks, plants, animals and rivers, the intelligence inherent in the natural world, including in their natural minds. They picture their Sierra Nevada mountain environment as the world’s heart, and its river and cloud cycles, linking the mountain glaciers with the sea, as a vital circulation system that is being destroyed by modern development. On the physical level, they see the rapid melting of the glaciers, the flow of pollutants into waters, the blocking and changing of water courses, the degradation of waters by mineral extraction. The spirit rivers they see are not exactly the same as the physical rivers. They believe both must be tended. The spirit rivers are tended by their spiritual practice, meditation, prayer and ritual. They call upon us to tend to the physical rivers. The Kogi heartland might be called the 4th pole.

            A Medicine Song set in Havasupai canyon in Arizona honors the healing beauty of the place where the singer is, where his people are: “The land we were given is right here, right here.” He honors its spring, the beauty of its waters, the waters his people drink. He sits down alone and sings himself a love song of where he is. “My illness,” he sings, “is absorbed.”



*      *      *



            Mystically, wherever we are is the center of the universe and hubs into the whole.

            Like most non-native Americans, my family came from somewhere else. We are only recently here, and once here, we have moved around and continue to do so. We have lost the art of being where we are, of honoring our place, of feeling we were born from its ground and arrived through its channels. Yet those of us who are not native to the particular place we now inhabit are in any case native to Earth. We are subject to the global flows of wind and water, light and temperature, and with our actions we affect them. We are all part of one body.

            Masaru Emoto observes how our emotions of love and gratitude affect the vibrational energies of water, generating healing in ourselves and in water and all living beings partaking of water. He has oriented his life by all the waters of the Earth and of our bodies. It is a way, he says, of discovering ourselves, a way of deepening our consciousness of the negative and positive impacts of our emotional patterns.

            Wangari Maathai tells how she was inspired to plant trees by seeing how the cutting down of a fig tree beside the stream where she played as a child caused the stream to disappear. “If the stream dies,” she saw, “the frog eggs, the tadpoles, the frogs, and everything else that lived in those waters disappears, and we can no longer go there to fetch water.” Since 1977, her Green Belt movement in Kenya has aroused hundreds of thousands of women and their communities to plant more that 40 million trees and recover forests and water sources.

            I lived as a child near a stream banked with willow trees. The trees were cut, the stream died, and the fields are now paved for sports and parking.



                                                                      *     *     *                          



            The Buddhist Wheel of Life depicts desire, aversion and ignorance spinning out into birth-realms and causal sequences of suffering. Buddha, outside the wheel, points to the moon, symbolic of Dharma, the way things are, the clear and luminous truth and the compassionate path toward seeing things as they are, penetrating through our mental and emotional obscurations.

            All of Earth’s waters, including those in my body and in the glass from which I drink, are moved in their rhythms by the moon in its cycles. When I was younger, I felt the moon cycles more viscerally in my body. Now, past the age of fertility, I try to pay attention to the cycles of the moon, especially in relation to plant life and also to my moods, but I quickly forget to pay attention.

            I used to volunteer-teach in a men’s maximum security prison, where the guards told me that violent confrontations escalate among the men during full moon.

            When I visit Madeline Island in August, I have more leisure to pay attention and I start to notice the affects of the moon on Lake Superior. As I submerge, I feel my inner waters continuous with the lake waters and the rhythms of the moon, the cycles of light and dark, of filling and emptying, storm and calm, power and beauty, the cooling from the excess heat of the burning sun, the luminous clarity of water and sky, the love-cries of the loon and the sandhill cranes, their lengths like arrows in the sky as they move from water to water.

            The season for immersion with the body is short, as Superior’s waters are cold even in summer. The seasons for immersion with the “water light doors” cycle through ice-bound winter, its blizzards and fierce winds. Some years the whole lake is thickly frozen.

            When I read of all the developments that threaten this special place, as of all the developments that threaten the other Great Lakes and the Hudson Valley where I live and the Himalayan Valleys where I lead student trips and the Rhine Valley of my forebears, and all the special places on this Earth that are dear to others’ hearts, water covers light in my water light doors.

            Buddha said, “Reflect on this body and consider it according to the characteristic of each element. ‘In this body is the earth element, the water element, the fire element and the air element.’” He also taught a practice of mentally giving the body to fire and its ashes to a river. We are our own refuge, he said. It is up to us to experience our mortal selves as we really are.

            The Tibetan poet saint Milarepa said, “When I gave rise to heartfelt compassion, it was like being cast into a pit of fire.” We cannot truly feel compassion, the teachings say, without the despair that comes with facing the extent of our sufferings and of our thoughts and actions that cause them. The burning dread and grief of our profound lack of love and care for ourselves and for the web of life we all share together begins the pilgrimage to Lake Anavatapta. To the degree I ignore it, the heat will increase its intensity to get my attention.



*     *     *



            My Hudson Valley pilgrimage lake is Awosting, a mountain lake in the Shawangunk Ridge. I often visit it on the way up to my dharma center, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, in the Catskills at the trailhead to Overlook Mountain. At the end of April this year, on my first visit after a long snow-deep winter, tiny white blessing pills, delicate hailstones, veiled the space over the water as with a white pointillated cloth. On the walk there and back again, I met three sky porcupines and no humans.

            On the way home, I attended an art show dedicated to the Lord of Compassion, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig in Tibet, Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan. I learned that the mythical dwelling place of Avalokiteshvara is Potalaka Mountain Island in the seas south of India, and that the Chinese manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin, is said to appearmiraculously in a blaze of golden light at the Cave of Tidal Sound on Mt. Putuo Island, a manifestation of Potalaka, in the South China Sea. Chinese painted and sculptured depictions of Guanyin are typically androgynous or female and include the Water-Moon Guanyin and White-Robed Guanyin and the Guanyin of the Southern Sea. A 10th Century Chinese text, “Moonlight in Water Guanyin Bodhisattva Sutra Spoken by the Buddha,” corresponds to these depictions. She sits on a rocky promontory of the island, rests her chin in her hand, and gazes into empty space. Sometimes she is enveloped in a full-moon nimbus and meditates on the moon’s reflection, sometimes she isenveloped in white cloths. Japanese and Korean Zen paintings adopt these pensive forms. Sometimes in the Japanese paintings, she is gazing toward a waterfall. These paintings have very little color, their lines are minimal and subtle, as if her cloaked and mystic form barely manifests out of the mind’s mist.

            At the end of Winter in the Korean film Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring, the Zen master, having lived through and purged the ignorance of his childhood, the lust of his youth, the rage of his adulthood, climbs a mountain overlooking the lake where he lives in a floating house. He carries a Guanyin statue and places her to watch over the world, the valley and the lake below.




*     *     *



            Water is a sacred mirror reflecting the vastness and luminosity of space at the heart of life’s profound communality.  When a shaman wears a mirror disk over her heart and drums earth’s and her inner heartbeat as one, she journeys through this sacred doorway and moves in the space of mind. She seeks some kind of healing vision. She trusts in nature and spirit, knowing they will give her what she needs.

            My mother was not a shaman nor am I, but I think my mother had not lost this kind of trust. She carried water for me, and she gives me this responsibility to be carried and passed on, as it has been by my mother line and every mother line since the first human mother perhaps 160,000 years ago, or since the first mammalian mother of primordial time, or the first mothers of any kind in Earth’s waters. Both sons and daughters, both my own female and male natures, carry the mitochondrial DNA and its remembrance of the mother line.

            In the first watch of the night of his awakening, Buddha recollected his past lives, a hundred thousand births, through many cycles of world-contraction and world-expansion. In the middle watch of the night he understood how beings pass away and are reborn according to their actions. In the last watch of the night, he realized a way leading to the cessation of all taints and the liberation from suffering. He taught a slow step-by-step process, a raft of dharma for riding life’s waters toward a realization ungraspable by words or thought.

            Between the vital flows of thoughts and feelings and the clear luminous space of awakened mind, of Buddha mind as yet clouded in me, writes Nagarjuna, “not even some subtle thing is to be known.”

            The lake mirroring the sky is beautiful and true and dear to my heart because of this insight, and this insight is beautiful and true and dear to my heart because the lake mirrors the sky.


A talk to myself when crisis in the life bardo grips my mind

A talk to myself when crisis in the life bardo grips my mind


“Aversion to pain is really a misplaced aversion to suffering…

…suffering is only one response to the experience of pain.”

--Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living


Old woman in pain and wanting it to be otherwise, old woman in pain for the living beings of this world, for sisters and brothers struggling in the life bardo, children and grandchildren, humans descended from that ancient mitochondrial mother in Africa, non-humans descended from hominid mothers and primate mothers and mammal mothers, from bird mothers and serpent mothers, fish mothers and bee mothers, myriad life-holders, egg-bearers, containers of mystery—old woman, stop grieving and be thankful for all those laboring for life on Earth, caring for our children now and those to come, for air and water and soil and food and wisdom untainted by pollution, for peace and for freedom, for trees and for gardens, teaching and healing, working to keep alive the ancient maternal mystery of selfless care, laboring with love and courage in this moment wherever they may be on Earth, laboring against great odds, knowing life is a rare and delicate and painful thing that comes to an end, and how it comes to an end determines how it begins again.


Old woman attached to life, wandering from self-enclosed sentience to self-enclosed sentience, from life to death and death to life since immemorial time, your mind projecting itself over everything, always entertaining itself, fomentingcrises---stop for a moment! Examine this endangered life, the causal patterns of samsaric time in which we who have feelings have each been each other’s mother and each other’s child as we time after time embodied in the life bardo prone to sorrow, sickness, degeneration, death and ignorance as well as beauty, love, wonder, fellow-feeling, peace and insight depending on the thoughts and humors coursing through our mind in each moment.


Out-dated romantic dreamer of Swabian heritage, seeped in Sehnsucht, Heimweh, Angst und Schmerzen, always longing for things to be other than they are, for a moment to pause and be perfect--examine the coursings of your mind! Like Schwarzwald streams, like the waters sung by your poets are its coursings. Everything that seems to be solid slips from your mind’s grasp.  Your fixation of grief at loss and death and pain and harm slides through and dissolves and returns. Your question how to appease it, how to solve it slides through and dissolves and returns. This is the nature of water, of your mind and the life bardo.


Old woman distressed with fear for life’s future as glaciers melt and waters rise, as islands sink and green lands turn to desert, as deep springs are poisoned or dry away without trees and roots holding earth for them, old woman growing older and older, watching these man-caused changes grow stronger, old woman whose present life bardo draws toward the dying bardo and the bardo of rebirth, who sees peers, children and grandchildren carry on through the stresses of youth and age as our personal and shared karmas weigh heavily on each of us, old woman always ranting in your mind, for the flash of this moment pause and be thankful! Remember what you have heard from dear deep-looking teachers, your mother, poets of mysteries, spiritual masters, lamas and gurus. Through the bardo of meditation they examined the life bardo and the death bardo, the bardo of dream and the bardo of illumination.  They saw death and life, which is deathless though hidden, flash together in a void lit by love’s thunderbolt. They felt pain and were not afraid. They took deeper refuge.


Slippery and slithery are their words in my mind, supple and ungraspable as naga water snakes. The path of mind is slow in the nagas’ deep abode. Their void-opening argument is subtle and tricky, tasting the poisons of fear, of wanting things to be otherwise, of unawakening inattention, finding the interdependent roots of these in samsaric mind, how it is of one taste with nirvanic mind, equally void and free of a self to hold on to. Yet for me and most of us, each imperiled on this imperiled Earth on which we humans through our mothers enter our life bardo, our samsaric minds fiercely blown by our karmic winds, the perils overwhelm the argument. We are lost and tossed at sea, each alone in our samsaric self. We are now more than seven billion, each of our minds separate in its life bardo in a human realm driven by wanting and not wanting.  I am wanting it to be otherwise, but things are as they are. In the nagas’ symbolic abode lies wisdom beneath and within the way things are.


Mythic poets tell how Patanjali, the ancient teacher who codified yoga’s penetration of the mind’s depths, was a naga incarnation. Coiled beneath seven underworlds in a sea of milk lies the beginningless, endless source of every form, Adishesa, imperishable residue. One-thousand headed, human above and snake below, he bears our Earth as a tuft of hair on his jeweled hood. He is the coiled couch of the deathless Purusha Vishnu, the energy that preserves. On him Vishnu sits and watches, or rests in yoga sleep when things, having died, await rebirth. From him come the myriad nagas that keep the concealed wisdoms of the deep-looking teachers, the inner teachers and their incarnations. In each of us he lies, at the base of our inner underworlds. He is the coiling wind of our samsaric mind, the primal couch and vehicle of our individual person. His energy spirals and coils in our DNA, our paths of blood and nerve, our dynamics of thought and motion, our bonds with earth and water, our shedding our bodies at death as we grow and slip through time from age to age. He is our hearing through our skin the vibrations of earth and water and their intimations of peril, the way things are.


In the primordial age, Lord Vishnu sat entranced by the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the Yoga Lord whose energy, in the cycles of life and mind, destroys to begin again, mirroring as one the dance of Shakti his consort who displays all natural things, physical, mental and spiritual, and through yoga returns them back to her source unmanifest, in union with him. In this enchantment, Vishnu’s body vibrated with heavy rhythmic pulse. Under his press, Adishesa could hardly breathe. “What is this change?” he asked. Being told of the dance, he asked for the grace to learn. Thus by Shiva’s grace he went into meditation. In a vision he saw his earthly mother Gonika, a yogini praying for a son and heir to her teachings. As she was doing her morning oblations to Savitri, Illuminator of inner and outer worlds, offering water in her hands, a tiny snake appeared in the water. Taking human form, Adishesa asked to be her son. She named him Patanjali, “fallen into hands cupped in oblation.” She taught him how to watch the mind’s endless flow, how to calm its fluctuations, how the waters become still and clear as a mirror, how they show the form of the watcher Shiva unmarked by Shakti, by the waves’ forms. In this samadhi, Patanjali entered the bliss of their union.


Patanjali became a most excellent teacher. His Yogasutras thread words like glass beads reflecting or seeds sprouting, like pearls of attention reflecting each to each. He abjured myth and poetic image. He used no extra words. He never digressed from his careful analysis of the mind and how to calm it. “Sutra” means thread; the sutras thread like a serpent through mind’s waters, they carry the mind into its residues. Each word requires reflection and discipline. “Mind,” “waves,” “restraint”—these words define what yoga is.


In the form of his avatar Krishna, Lord Vishnu also came incarnate to Earth. He taught the yogas of knowledge, devotion, meditation and action to the hero Arjuna who was distressed, as we are now, by our ability to be locked in mortal conflict with our fellow beings, in danger of destroying everything. His teachings, recorded by the legendary poet Vyasa in the Bhagavadgita,  inspired the non-violent action of Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and the fight for peace and life on Earth today. They teach how we each have our inner dharma, our karmic potential. At each point in life, we can work to energize our good residues and pacify our not good. In a yoga of devotion, we give our beneficient action to the Lord, the deathless Purusha, the human-shaped Person, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, the inner Teacher, the Man of Light, the Knower of the Field, the chosen deity we carry like a flame illuminating the deepest reservoirs of our heart.


Moment by moment, coordinated with the flow of the life breath and illumined by the yoga of devotion, the yoga of meditation focuses me inward. My attention fastens on the pains in my muscles and bones, in the Earth’s vital elements, in living beings whose cries I hear. The cries of pain in myself and the world draw me toward Buddha’s examination of suffering.


According to legend, Gautama Buddha stored his subtlest insights in the nagas’ domain, in deep mind waters. These insights are born of the Wisdom Mother, of Her selfless compassion, fresh in each moment, lighting the mind’s path to freedom from suffering. Buddha predicted that his student Priyadarshana’s reincarnation would have naga in his name and recover the teachings. Nagas’ energy moves in the deep waters of reincarnational minds, shedding skin after skin, appearance after appearance, slipping birth to birth. Thus when Nagarjuna was Priyadarshana, Buddha’s teachings left traces in his mindwaves and with his new birth reentered the life bardo.


The Heart Sutra, the heart of the sutras retrieved by Nagarjuna, begins with homage to the Noble Mother Prajnaparamita, Perfection of Wisdom. The Lord Buddha, dwelling with his entourage of students and bodhisattvas on Vulture Mountain near Rajagriha, is seated absorbed in profound meditation on the way things are. At this same time, the noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, moving in wisdom’s deep course, sees how all phenomena are empty of own-being. Buddha’s disciple Sariputra, through the power of Buddha, asks Avalokiteshvara how a person in the lineage should train if he would practice the profound perfection of wisdom. Avalokiteshvara says, he should correctly and repeatedly behold each phenomenon and all phenomena as empty of own-being. Then, he says, there is neither attainment nor non-attainment. The mind then dwells without coverings, without obscuration or fear. He proclaims the mantra of the perfection of wisdom: “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha--go, go, go beyond, go entirely beyond, awaken, her blessing.” Then the Buddha arises from meditative absorption and commends Avalokiteshvara’s teaching of the profound perfection of wisdom practice.


The Dalai Lama, in his commentary, points out that the Buddha is said to have given 84,000 collections of discourses, variously addressing the range of dispositions and inclinations among living beings. The teachings in this sutra are at the heart of his teachings, recited daily by practitioners. Through perfection of wisdom practice, all physical and mental elements are contemplated as dependently originated, empty of own-being. In profound meditation, the mind, gone “entirely beyond” and awakened,  is aware of relative and ultimate truth, samsara and nirvana, at the same time. In the conclusion of the sutra, Buddha’s absorption in profound meditation is thus shown to be not separate from his awareness of the conventional world of Avalokiteshvara’s and Sariputra’s dialogue.


His Holiness relates the perfection of wisdom training to five classic stages of the path to Buddhahood. In the first stage, the path of accumulation, one begins to learn about, reflect on and more deeply understand the empty nature of phenomena. This is where I am now. In the second stage, the stage of preparation, conceptualization during meditation recedes. In the third stage, the path of seeing, dualistic perceptions, as of subject and object, are removed. In the fourth stage, the stage of meditation or familiarization, one progresses through uneradicated mental afflictions, propensities and imprints. In the fifth stage, no more learning, “the obscuration preventing the simultaneous perception of both ultimate and conventional truth within a single cognitive event” is removed. In this experience, as Nagarjuna writes, “not even the subtlest difference is to be found between the extreme of nirvana and the extreme of samsara.”


According to the legend, Nagarjuna was an eminent teacher and debater at Nalanda, India’s renowned Buddhist monastic university. He kept noting a strong scent of sandalwood whenever two particular young men attended his teachings. Upon questioning, the young men said they were not human, but were naga princes wearing sandalwood to protect them in the impure human world. The nagas, they said, had attended Buddha’s teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom and written them down for safekeeping, since few humans at the time understood them. On their invitation, Nagarjuna went with them to their underwater kingdom, studied there for fifty years, and brought the sutras back to the human world. He lived on, according to legend, for six hundred years! He wrote Root Verses on the Middle Way, the classic text of Mahayana Middle Way philosophy and source of the quote above. He concludes the Root Verses, “I pay homage to Gautama who, out of compassion, taught the true dharma for the relinquishment of all views,” intimating that Buddha’s insights shed words, concepts and views as if written on water.


Toward the end of this long life, Nagarjuna went away again and stayed with the nagas in Uttarakuru, a northern place, from where he brought back Buddha’s secret teachings onhighest yoga tantra. These teachings, involving complex meditative symbolism and deity visualization, are personally transmitted from guru to student. They begin with Perfection of Wisdom emptiness yoga practice, since it is upon realization of the empty nature of phenomena that the powerful meditational deity energies are projected.


As a great tree, deep-rooted, firm of trunk, with vast-reaching branches, circulates the airs and waters of life between earth and sky and invites all kinds of living beings to live in its circle, so a Buddha draws beings of all kinds near him as he sits deep-rooted in meditation, firm of trunk, grounded on earth, with boundless compassion for all beings. Around him are envisioned vast numbers of devas and nagas, natural luminous and serpentine energies of spiritual and material worlds gross and subtle, and of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who manifest in physical and mental forms for the benefit of others to alleviate their sufferings. The vastness of this great assemblage of energies, at once natural and enlightening, around the unshakeable center of a Buddha’s presence awakens the bodhi seed of compassion and wisdom in each practitioner’s heart.


Deity yoga, it is said, is particularly suited to crisis-ridden times such as ours, to transform our habitual negative energies into Buddha energies and realize the empty, lucid, unlimited nature of mind, all limiting coverings removed, so that we can live and act with greater clarity.


Bending my afflicted body and afflictive thoughts, I press my heart and brow to the Earth and prostrate myself before the compassionate Buddha and the Mother Wisdom, before the ancient still-living lineages of poets, teachers and mothers, before all those who selflessly labor for this precious life on this precious Earth.