Adorning your sacred space

lama willa blythe baker

In this extract from her forthcoming book, Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You , Lama Willa Miller shows how the symbolism of a shrine can help connect you with your own deepest values and spiritual potential.

A shrine is a repository for objects of inspiration. It is a material expression of your spiritual quest. It is a physical space housing symbols that remind you of your commitment to humanity, your community, or the earth, in whatever form that takes for you. These symbols can range from very personal to universal. Symbols are powerful. They speak to us in a language beyond words, and they evoke with imagery. Shrine symbols are selected to remind us of the qualities of wisdom-nature and the spiritual journey.

Start with a surface. Almost any elevated surface will do. Here are some improvisations I have made in my life: a small table, a shelf, the top of a dresser, a box covered with a cloth, a fireplace mantle, a smooth stone, and a board across two cinderblocks, covered with a cloth. For a three-year retreat, we were each supplied with a real Tibetan-style shrine with three levels and cabinet doors. This is a nice luxury if you are a carpenter or have the means to purchase a shrine. But if not, there are many options. It should be visible from your seat but does not have to be near it.

Select what goes on the shrine by how meaningful it feels to you with regard to your spiritual journey.

The heart of a shrine is the sacred objects that go in or on it. Start simple. Select what goes on the shrine by how meaningful it feels to you with regard to your spiritual journey. In other words, what you put on your shrine should be a symbolic reflection of your intention and aspirations. Shrine objects are there to uplift or inspire you. Anything that moves you to feel loving, content, and peaceful belongs on a shrine. Especially look for whatever reminds you of your wisdom-nature, the innate potential that you carry with you.

To start with, collect things from around your own home, or use natural objects from your yard or other outdoor places. See how creative you can be with what you already have. If that means putting only one object on your shrine, or even visualizing something in front of you, that is enough to start!

In 1959, when the Chinese invaded eastern Tibet, many Tibetans were placed in concentration camps. One friend of mine, a lama, was in a camp for six months before he escaped. They took everything away from him and his fellow prisoners: his monks robes, his rosary, his sacred texts — everything. He had only a Chinese uniform provided by the camp wardens. My friend used visualization and what little he had at his disposal. With no outer supports, he continued to visualize his spiritual mentors above his head, and he put aside small bits of food as symbolic offerings to them. When the guards were not looking, he would dip his finger in his drinking water and flick it into the air as a symbolic offering to the Buddha. When the lights went out at night, he sat up in meditation. He had to be covert about his spiritual practices because the Chinese guards punished any religious expression. He once told me that the period of six months in a concentration camp was the best retreat he ever had! So while objects can be inspiring and supportive, they are never as important as your mindset and intention. Objects are optional, but intention is essential.

Objects are optional, but intention is essential.

On a Buddhist shrine, you will typically find representations of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind: a statue, a book, and a stupa. Body, speech, and mind are sometimes called the “three gates to liberation” in Buddhist sources, because — when you think about it — that is precisely where liberation is going to take place: in your body, speech, and mind (and the bodies, speech, and minds of everyone else). The physical, verbal, and mental aspects of your being are like the clay you have to work with. Awakening can be fashioned out of nothing else. Therefore, it makes sense that the most basic objects on a shrine represent body, speech, and mind, in their awakened or perfected form, because that is where we aspire to go.

The statue — the symbol of awakened body — might be of the Buddha, or it might be of some other enlightened being. It is intended to communicate that enlightenment takes form in the world, through action. The book represents awakened speech, and means that enlightenment can be communicated verbally. A stupa — representing awakened mind — is a small reliquary that comes in a few shapes, usually a carved mound or thick spire with bas-relief designs. When the Buddha died, his ashes were placed in such a reliquary, and it is believed that those relics still survive. So ever after, the shape of the stupa came to be associated with the Buddha’s undying wisdom-mind.

The question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my mind to awaken?

If you want, you can look for symbolic representations of awakened body, speech, and mind in your own home (or these days, online). Choose objects or images that are personally meaningful. As a representation of awakened body, a statue of the Buddha is not the most meaningful image for everyone. It might be a picture of your spiritual mentor, an image of a person to whom you feel devotion, or something else entirely. On my first shrine, I placed a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that I found at a garage sale as a kid, because it reminded me of the power of motherly love. Later, it was the image of Tara. Then these were joined by a Buddha statue. A shrine can be a work in progress.

The question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my body and the bodies of everyone to become sages? The body is the vessel that carries you to awakening. What reminds you that your own body and the bodies of others are precious vessels? What reminds you that your body is an instrument of carrying out your life-intention?

The body is your sacred temple, the most sacred of spaces, where awakening occurs. What reminds you that your body is a crucible for enlightenment? Some examples of representations of body include photos of inspiring people who have used their bodies to inspire and uplift others, statues, body images, or an object that reminds you of your body’s potential. I have seen someone use a small cactus. When I asked her why the cactus, she replied, “It is like me … spiny on the outside, and soft on the inside! It reminds me to look for the softness in myself.”

You do not have to limit yourself to traditional images.

For the representation of speech, the question to ask is: what reminds me of the potential of my speech, and the speech of all people, to become enlightened? Your speech is the instrument of communication with the world. It is through speech that the mind’s wisdom and love translates into words that inspire and uplift others. The vehicle of language and speech is the reason we are able to traverse a path at all and is the conduit of teaching and learning. Some traditional representations of awakened speech include sacred books or texts, inspiring poetry, rosaries or prayer beads (symbolizing the repetition of a set of empowering syllables called a mantra), bells, chimes, drums, and conch shells. Almost anything that makes a pleasant sound could be a representation of awakened speech. In the Tibetan Buddhist environment, even the alphabet (and every letter of the alphabet) is considered inherently sacred, because it is the vehicle of the communication of sound and meaning and is sometimes repeated during prayers to bless a person’s speech. These days, a representation of awakened speech could even be a CD.

For the representation of mind, the question to ask yourself is: What reminds me of the potential of my mind — my innermost wisdom-nature — to awaken? Although the wisdom-nature has no form, if you had to give it a form, what would you choose? The Buddhists traditionally use a stupa. You could choose whatever reminds you of your mind’s potential to awaken perfect love and wisdom. Some traditional Tibetan representations of the mind include a crystal, because mind refracts the light of truth as many colors; a mirror, because all sense appearances are reflected in the surface of awareness; a jewel or vajra, because the mind is indestructible; and a sword, as a symbol that a sage’s wisdom cuts through everything else. These are just a few. You should think about what kind of symbol works for you. You do not have to limit yourself to traditional images.

Read More

Meditation distanced from Buddhist roots (Toronto Star)

PUNNADHAMMO BHIKKHU, Toronto Star: Not so long ago, the practice of meditation was considered something exotic or eccentric. Not anymore. In recent years, it has definitely moved into the mainstream of Western culture. Everyone from neuro-scientists to sociologists, educators and medical researchers is seriously investigating its effects and benefits.

There is mounting evidence, for instance, that a state of calm, focused awareness can assist the healing process.

In several places, different forms of meditation training are incorporated into the health-care system, with very good results.

Perhaps the best known of these projects is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Interest is also growing in using meditative techniques for treating psychiatric problems such as ADD and bi-polar disorder. If these modalities of treatment become established they could revolutionize the mental health field. Not the least of the benefits would be the reduction in use of costly psycho-active drugs, with all their harmful side-effects.

Another area where meditation practice is making inroads is in prison reform. In several places there are on-going projects to teach meditation to prisoners.

One of the oldest and most established of these is that of S.N. Goenka’s Vipassana organization which runs programs in India and the United States.

There are other prison meditation projects based in various Buddhist traditions — Zen, Theravada and Tibetan — being run in several countries.

Wherever it’s been tried, teaching meditation to prisoners has had great effect in reducing stress, violence and even recidivism. Often the biggest hurdle to overcome is opposition from conservative authorities to “frills,” but when they see that it is a cheap, effective and safe way to ease prison management they can become staunch supporters of the idea.

There are many different schools and techniques of meditation, but most of the methods currently practised in such settings as hospitals, hospices, stress clinics, schools and prisons have their origins in various Buddhist traditions, most often Zen or the Vipassana techniques of Burmese Theravada. Buddhism is more than meditation, but meditation is a crucial part of the Buddhist path. In Buddhism, meditation falls under the heading of Bhavana, or development, meaning mental development. It is considered as essential for the well-being of the mind as exercise is for the body.

The methods of meditation used in all these varied social contexts, although Buddhist in origin , are often highly secularized. Sometimes even the use of the word “meditation” is avoided in favour of “relaxation technique” or “focusing.” This is similar to the way Western culture has abstracted other eastern disciplines like yoga and the martial arts from their original spiritual context. Teachers like Kabat-Zinn make this separation as a deliberate policy, to avoid trappings of exoticism that are off-putting to a mainstream clientele.

There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but traditional Buddhists are quick to point out that meditation in the traditional understanding is about much more than stress relief or even healing, valid as these are. In the Buddhist teachings the end of practice is awakening or liberation, which is above the plane of all such limited goals.

It is worthwhile to remember that any meditation technique abstracted from the original context is only part of the whole, and the results can only be partial. Freud said of psychoanalysis that at best it could bring the patient to a state of “ordinary misery.” That might be a blessing for someone mired in extraordinary misery, but why stop there?

[Original article no longer available]
Read More

Monks work to construct mandala (The Penn Online, Pennsylvania)

The Penn: Meditation, as practiced by the 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting IUP this week, provides “stability and calmness” and opens the potential of one’s mind, said Eleanor Mannikka, Monday’s Six O’Clock Series speaker.

“What powers your behavior is your mind,” said Mannikka, an IUP art professor and 25-year practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. “All the minds that human beings have are the most powerful tools in the universe. Without meditation you’re using a small fraction of your mind.”

Buddhists practice the teachings of Siddhartha Gotama — the Buddha — who after six years of meditation about 2,500 years ago, found the “middle path,” or enlightenment, in his search for the ways to avoid suffering and be happy.

Much of that suffering, Mannikka said, comes from attachment to worldly things, whether it’s material or a connection with others.

“[Buddha] didn’t say it’s love and compassion for your friends that causes suffering, but if you have an attachment with that love where you want good feedback … If you want something in return, you’re going to suffer,” she said.

Buddhism — the fourth-largest religion and only one with enlightenment as the goal — seeks to break that attachment through meditation, which must be taught by an instructor first-hand and “altruistic thinking,” Mannikka said.

In stages and with years of practice, one achieves enlightenment, “a state of emptiness” that comes from wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline, she said.

“Underlying everything in the entire universe is the basis of what we call emptiness,” which “cannot be described because it lies beyond concept,” she said. “It is very different for us to imagine that our minds can actually operate beyond concept.”

Eventually, those who meditate might experience “nanoseconds of what that emptiness is, and it is so mind-blowing. You would not believe that your mind can exist in that particular state,” she said.

For the master Tibetan monks, that transcendence may have metaphysical implications, she said.

“The Tibetans are notorious for doing things like walking through walls,” levitating or flying, she said. “This world that we see is illusory. … When the mind transcends the illusion of solidity in all objects, then solid objects cease to maintain their obstacle nature.”

Meditation typically involves controlled breathing, a focus on relieving tension and introspection.

“You don’t have to be a Buddhist to do the basic meditation. … When you think of yourself in that way, that you’re much bigger than this moment, that your life has meaning. It is then your job to fulfill that meaning,” she said.

Article no longer available in the original website (Original URL.)

Read More

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.