contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Stephen Karcher

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/

 

WOODEN TIGER, ENNOBLING TASKS

“A ferocious wooden tiger stands before the door you wish to enter, but he harms no-one”. According to the Kuan Yin Oracle (1), now is the time to put things to the proof, submit to the ordeal and separate the wheat from the chaff. It is the time of the seed and the pearl, when I am tasked to find “the hidden treasure behind the play of illusions”. The Oracle also suggests to me that it won’t be too hard to do this, because “basically, you are a realist”.

I started an online course yesterday, concerned with a fresh look at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, reframed as four ennobling tasks. This course is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

As part of its mission, “Bodhi College wants to recover core insights of early Buddhist teachings, so as to develop fresh ways of understanding the Dharma today. It seeks to provide a contemplative education that inspires students to realize the values of the Dharma in the context of this secular age and culture”.

Classically, the Four Nobles truths are framed as statements about suffering (dukkha) and what to do about it. Some people don’t like ‘suffering’ as the English translation and prefer to talk about stress, ‘the painful’, that which is hard to bear, unsatisfactoriness. My sense is that dukkha covers the range. One of the course tutors, Christina Feldman, calls it “the arguments we have with all that is unarguable” – things like illness, ageing and death, as the Buddha pointed out right at the beginning.

Taught as a doctrine, the Four Noble Truths assert:

  1. The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
  2. The origin of suffering in four forms of attachment: to sensory pleasures; to our opinions and views; to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience; to our belief that we exist as a solid, permanent self
  3. The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
  4. The path to end suffering, this being the eightfold path of right (or skillful) understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

The suggested problem with this presentation is that it asks people to take a position on a set of propositions – agree, disagree, partly agree/disagree, don’t know. The invitation of the course is to look at this in another way, which the tutors say may be truer to the earliest Buddhist teaching. The suggestion here is that Buddhism needed such metaphysical formulae to become a respectable Indian religion of the day, whereas the Buddha himself may have been something of a sceptic, immersed in creative conversations with inquirers and avoiding dogma as far as possible. However, the real issue is about what kind of Buddhism people want to develop today.

Here, the proponents of my online course are very clear. The four proposed tasks can be summed up in the slogan: understand, realise, give up, develop. So far, I take this to mean that I ask myself what if anything ‘suffering’ means to me and how I might know that I am experiencing it. How, in my understanding, does it come about? What could I do towards letting go of it and in what ways might this lead to a different kind of life? This exploration is tied to an ethical quest: how do I become the kind of person I aspire to be? How can I help to create the kind of world I want to live in? (Hence the notion of ‘ennobling tasks’). These are open questions, and I work on them in my own life, rather than generating opinions about statements. Relative to many other spiritual traditions, Buddhists tend in this direction anyway. This approach simply takes the spirit of inquiry further and perhaps gives it more freedom.

I’m only at the start of one brief online course (six weeks). I do know, already, that if I’m going to be involved more in the Buddhist world, this is a direction I would want to move in. I’m encouraged.

  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

ANOTHER SHORE?

 

My sacred space at home has undergone a complete makeover. I am effectively in a different place. It happened this way. On 7 May, I ordered a statue of Guanyin, partly as a birthday present to myself and partly with reference to ‘the true thought of the heart’. Perhaps the true thought of the heart is the real gift. In a blog post I wrote on that day (1), I described Guanyin as sitting on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. I said: “it is the note that I am looking for”.

When the statue arrived from China, it was much bigger than I expected. It was over two metres high and quite broad, because Guanyin is sitting on a crescent moon, which takes up space. Caught up in the elegance of the design, I had completely misread the dimensions. No room in my room for the true thought of the heart?

Making room involved a complete clearing and cleaning of the place, and a considerable re-arranging of furniture. During an afternoon, I reshaped the space entirely with Guanyin as the predominant focus. Other imagery is still there. The Western Way is still well represented. A Green Man represents our oneness with the Earth, and our apparent separation from it and need for healing stories. A somewhat Marian (both of them) Sophia is there, imaging sacred fertility, sacramental relationship and the challenge to awaken. So are other familiar objects – a dragon sitting on an egg, an abstract and geometrical mandala picture, a tiny wooden Buddha, (not new) contained and serene. (A hopefully only slightly larger and more expansive laughing one is on his way.) Around the walls I find a C17th map of Somerset, my native county; pictures of Glastonbury Tor and the Eildon Hills; a small painting of a crane; and a painting I commissioned in the early 1990s of the Pictish Dancing Sea Horses from the Aberlemno Stone in Angus.

Yet the defining presence is now Guanyin. It happened as if by itself. The rest of the room is familiar and understood. She by contrast is numinous, dynamic and unknown, as well as large. The relationship is not yet established. Close-up, she is indeed playful and androgynous, but she is much more than that. As Guanyin, s/he hears the cries of the world. In her male aspect, s/he is Avolokitesvara, who shared the wisdom gained from deep practice in The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. S/he opens the way to the whole tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and its Vajrayana or Tantric variants. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the seeming riddle of this path. “The Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact no living beings are being helped to the other shore’ (2). Inevitably, it seems, I am drawn by this proposition. Necessarily, it seems, I am gathering Buddhist resources and accessing Buddhist networks, now attracted to the path as well as the Bodhisattva. I did not anticipate this.

This transcends contemplative inquiry, whilst emphatically including it. The Guanyin Oracle (3) tells me that I am under a God’s protection, and gives me a verse called After the Rain.

“After a long rain, we joyously watch the heavens clear.

The sun and moon grow slowly brighter.

The gloomy days are over, so be happy and joyous.

You will bound through the Dragon Door in one leap.

I am reminded of Penny Billington’s use of the term ‘egrigore’ in Contemplative Druidry (4). In Chapter 4 Druid Identity and Values, she says that spiritual movements have an egrigore, “an inner reality made up not only of the ideas of the members, but also the invisible influences from the other realms that resonate with that ‘flavour’ of spiritual thought; and as Druids we are dedicated to making connections not only in the natural world but on the other planes as well, other states of consciousness.” I certainly find that images and their associations can have a tremendous power if I am open to them, and for me, now, the Guanyin image is one of those. It is focusing my energy and attention, and making a Buddhist inspired matrix of references, aspirations, values, traditions and practices vividly present to me. This kind of process works much faster than ordinary thinking. Assembling a new Chinese statue out of three separate parts, cleansing and reordering a room, took me into a new space, and here I still am.

  • https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/
  • Thich Nhat Hanh The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation London: Rider, 1991
  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the voice of the Goddess of compassion London: Piatkus, 2009
  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. 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.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

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