contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: November, 2017

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

GARY SNYDER: ‘WILD’

“The word wild is like a grey fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of site. Up close, first glance, it is ‘wild’ – then further into the woods next glance it’s ‘wyld’ and it recedes and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Tuetonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Tuetonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage) and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s ‘awful ferity’ shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly

Of plants – not cultivated

Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated

Of foodcrops – produced or yielded without cultivation

Of societies – uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government

Of individuals – unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”, 1614

Of behavior – violent, destructive, cruel, unruly

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild” – John Milton

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what – from a human standpoint – it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what is is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living in natural systems

Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities

Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of non-human forces. Pristine.

Of foodcrops – food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit and seeds

Of societies – societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist political and economic domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem

Of individuals – following local custom, style and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent

Of behavior – freely resisting any oppression, confinement or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, ‘bad’, admirable.

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic

Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases, we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.”

Gary Snyder The Practice of the Wild Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990

In a preface to the 2010 edition, Gary Snyder describes his path as “a kind of old time Buddhism which remains connected to animist and shamanist roots. Respect for all living beings is a basic part of that tradition. I have tried to teach others to meditate and enter into the wild areas of the mind. … Even language can be seen as a wild system”.

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

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