Loving Hands

HH Dalai Lama holding the hands of a leper in India, March 2014

HH Dalai Lama holding the hands of a leper in India, March 2014

I have returned home, from my journey into the Womb World on Mt Koya in Japan and the initiation from the Dalai Lama, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude to all the people in my life who have helped and supported me to reach this profoundly significant point in my own spiritual life path. During this journey I was very privileged to have been entrusted with the prayers of several hundred fellow pilgrims, which I offered at the sacred places I encountered on my pilgrimage and which were ritually burned at the end of my journey. My own prayer now is that I can find skilful ways of passing on the great blessings I received during this time on the mountain to everyone I meet so that this flow of blessings can ripple out into the world.

I will write further about this experience in subsequent blogs, as the teachings I received – from my own teacher, from the Dalai Lama, from the mountain spirits – settle into me and I can find adequate words to describe what precious lessons I learned. For now, I would like to share with you two experiences I had during my pilgrimage.

The most sacred place on Mt Koya is the Gobyo, the shrine where Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism, is interred and is believed by many to be still living, seated in a state of perpetual meditation. As well as being the starting and finishing point for the 1,200 kilometre Shikoku pilgrimage, pilgrims come here from all over Japan to ask for Kobo Daishi’s help with problems in their lives. Every day during my own pilgrimage in Mt Koya I visited this sacred place as part of my ritual practice.

Path to Kobo Daishi's shrine

Path to Kobo Daishi’s shrine

On one particular day it was snowing hard and the two-kilometer path through the ancient cemetery of Okunoin that leads to Kobo Daishi’s inner sanctum was treacherously slippery and hard going, and there were very few pilgrims about. However, while I was reciting prayers in front of the shrine, a very old man came and stood before the shrine, dressed in pilgrim clothes of white and wearing a pilgrim’s straw hat, now dusted white with snow. He held the hand of a middle-aged woman, who was intellectually disabled and had difficulty walking, taking small staggered steps and holding firm to the old man’s hand. As he explained to her in a quiet, gentle voice, like speaking to a small child, that he was now going to say prayers and instructed her to stay close to him and not walk away, it became clear that the woman was his daughter.

The old man released his daughter’s hand so that he could hold his rosary beads in one hand and a small, well-used prayer book in his other hand. He lit a stick of incense, placed it in the brazier, and began to quietly and fervently pray. His daughter watched the puffs of steamed breath coming from her father’s mouth and found this very amusing, so she made huffing breaths of her own and delighted in the little clouds of smoke-like vapour coming from her mouth, laughing at the way the vapour moved over and around her father’s head. She then puffed out clouds closer up into her father’s face, mingling with his breath and continued huffing breaths around his head and neck. In the process of her happy game, she accidentally knocked off his pilgrim hat, but her father didn’t stop his praying to pick up the hat or to admonish his daughter, but just kept chanting in a rhythmic, lilting voice.

When he finished his prayers, he stooped and retrieved his hat; then, taking his daughter’s hands in both of his, he caught her attention and looked intently into her eyes, whispering something urgent and intimate. Then he just stood there for a moment in silence, holding her hands, with tears streaming down his withered old cheeks as the swirling clouds of their breath intermingled. His gaze was one of complete and unconditional love. Then he said, “Would you like a cake now?”, and in response to her wide smile and nodding head, he took he hand and led her away, back out into the snowy landscape.

I wondered what pressing prayer had driven him through the snow with his daughter to get here – was it perhaps a concern about who might care for his daughter upon his death? There was something deeply humbling in his act of prayer, and the purity and complete openness of that gaze of unconditional love for his daughter had pierced my heart, so I stayed and prayed fervently for their well-being and protection and that whatever he had asked for would be received.

HH Dalai Lama entering the temple at Mt Koya

HH Dalai Lama entering the temple at Mt Koya

The following week, when the Dalai Lama first arrived at the temple in Mt Koya, he came up to me and, greeting me as if we were old friends, he took my hands and held them and looked into my eyes with an expression of infinite compassion. Just like the old pilgrim. In that moment, I tried to bring to mind all of the people who had entrusted me with their prayers and all those who had supported and helped me to get to there, so that they too might share in this moment of blessing, together holding the hands of the Dalai Lama. And I received his blessing with the mind of a child, fully trusting that the gift of his teaching and initiation were bestowed upon me unconditionally and out of compassion to heal all suffering in all beings. And then I cried…

Sacred Places

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I enter one of the sacred sites dedicated to Kannon (Kuan Yin) on Japan’s ancient pilgrimage route, it feels as though I am walking through an energy veil, a kind of force field that separates this space from the mundane world around it – I am stepping onto sacred earth, imbued with a special energy that I can feel permeate my physical body. What makes this energy flow? What makes me feel it? What is a sacred place?

Is it because over the course of hundreds of years, thousands of pilgrims have stepped here before me, all offering their prayers and opening their hearts. Or is it because the wisest of sages, hundreds of holy men and women have trodden this path and offered their deep wisdom and compassion to be shared by all who follow in their footsteps. Or is it the very ground I tread on, percolated with a special earth energy that permeates the ageless rocks and stones and sand of this sacred place and then imbues every footstep as I tread on this ancient path. Is it my own response of awe to this place, which is named as “sacred,” that brings my awareness to the potency of all the sacred signs in the statues, carvings, paintings, architecture, and priests in robes, and incense, and flowers, and the beams of soft light penetrating the mysterious darkened alcoves of the temple. Perhaps it is the sum of all these elements that casts its sacred spell upon my mind and all my senses, all at the moment of crossing the threshold of the great gates at the temple’s entrance.

Warrungup Spring by Gloria Keering

Warrungup Spring by Gloria Keering

2014.03.29_egretYet, today I felt that sacred energy once again – right here where I live. This morning, I walked my usual route, starting and ending at a local indigenous sacred place called Warrungup Spring. This site is a sacred women’s place, where women came to give birth on the edge of  a great estuary, at the junction of three water courses, where there is fresh water. I looked out over the estuary: the sun, as it rose, splashed the water with sparkles of golden pink, a white egret in the reeds paused to share the view, a flock of black swans elegantly glided out from the shore, pelicans were scooping up fish in their huge bills, and raucous galahs cut through the soft whispers of the sheoaks.  And in the western sky, the crescent moon hung languidly pale in the still dark blue. As I stood in this timeless vision, I imagined countless generations of women who, in the peaceful dawn after their long painful night of labour, holding their baby in their arms, also looked upon this same view. I was filled with a sense of profound awe at the resilience of these women and the expression of sacred beauty all around me. I felt the sacred presence of the Wargyl, the ancient Creator of the water courses that fed and nurtured the people and animals who passed through this sacred place. I felt humbled and full of gratitude for this gift.

2014.03.29_estuaryWhen I returned home, back to the profane world and the mundane everyday chores of housework, I felt as though I left that sacred world behind me. And then, while I was in the midst of doing the dishes, I happened to glance out the window and saw the crescent moon, so pale and fleeting, and in an instant I was suddenly reconnected to the scene of the early morning, reconnected with the awe I had felt. And in that moment, I realised that the sacredness of the Warrungup Spring was carried home within me: I was a container for its sacred energy – my body was imbued with its sacred beauty and meaning by having simply been there and breathed the air and touched the earth. I had born witness to its sacred nature with my body and had honoured that sacredness by the act of remembering.

A sacred place exists as a geographical location, but also as the living breath of the place that is carried away by anyone who visits, and as the breath is expelled, so the sacred energy is passed on to other living beings and other places. This is the healing nature of sacredness and the way that any place, anywhere and at any time, can be made “sacred.” We all “know” that the whole of the earth itself is sacred, and so everywhere and at any time we should be able to feel the same awe of the sacred that these special places bring. But we forget to recognise its sacred signs. It is our spiritual practice to not only connect with awe and gratitude to the sacredness imbued in the beauty and wonder of our world, but to remember.

Rose-coloured Glasses

2014.02.04_rosy copyTo look at life through “rose-coloured glasses” means to see things as better than they really are, or to think that things are more pleasant than they actually are. It has a negative connotation, as if the person with the rose-coloured glasses is avoiding an unpleasant reality. However, I actually think that we all need a bit more rose-tinting in our outlook on life.

At dawn this morning I took my dogs for a walk, relishing the cool morning air, bracing for another scorcher of a day. And as the sun rose, everything was suddenly bathed with deep pink light – the trees glowed pink, the black fur of the dogs reflected pink highlights, the leaves on the hot dry earth shone pink, my skin had a rosy glow. Everything was awash in warm surreal pink. It was as if I was looking at the whole world through rose-coloured glasses – and it was just so intensely beautiful. Yet it was real; there wasn’t anything unpleasant that was being avoided or a reality that was being ignored. Instead, I was bearing witness to a spectacular show put on by Nature and I was fully immersed in a world of ‘pinkness’. Not only was I seeing everything as rosy, I felt that I could smell, taste, feel and hear PINK. And I just laughed because it made me feel so happy! I laughed in the way that child spontaneously laughs – with joyful delight in a sudden magical moment.

The pink light, though, was fleeting. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared and the world of familiar green trees, black dogs and grey sand returned. But what didn’t disappear was the sense of awe and euphoria I felt, which stayed with me. I remained in a rosy glow, as I continued with the humdrum of doing my daily chores, still seeing the world not as actually bathed in pink, but as being imbued with some new quality. After experiencing the intense sensual immersion of the dawn, I became aware of the colours of everything I was engaging with – everything seemed edged with a radiant glow. Of course, my everyday world was in no way changed in itself; instead, it was the keen awareness I now seemed to have of the way light reflected off the surface of things and into my eye. In the aftermath of the pinkness, everything seemed more vibrant and alive.

I believe that a spiritual path is an engagement with beauty; spiritual practice is an awakening to beauty. In our media-driven bracing-for-the-next-crisis world it becomes harder to connect to the profound and awe-filled beauty that is all around us, waiting to be experienced at any moment. After all, I think it is significant that the Buddha experienced his awakening whilst outside, sitting under a beautiful tree. As well as encouraging you to take a walk at dawn and experience this awakening of the day in its glorious light and birdsong, I think we should all try wearing rose-coloured glasses more often, not to escape the unpleasant realities of life, but to see into its beauty and hold that in our hearts so that as we do confront head-on the difficulties of living, we can do so with images of beauty in our minds. Even in the midst of the fray, we can experience joy by simply remembering to ‘see’ what is also present that is uplifting. So, today I am sending you all blessings bathed in pink and a wish for you to awaken to beauty and to see the rosy glow in the world around you – look up from the computer, look out the window – what do you see?

Why Astrology?

03teishukuFor many people it may seem strange that as a Buddhist priest I would work with astrology, because astrology is often condemned as irrational and mere superstitious nonsense, whereas Buddhism is a highly respected philosophy and religious institution based firmly on sound rational principles. Certainly in other religions, such as mainstream institutional Christianity, it would be considered heretical for a priest or minister to work with astrology. However, although there also some conservative Buddhist priests in Japan who view astrology with scepticism, my own venerable teachers have embraced astrology as useful tool in helping people to overcome their suffering and to live a life free from fear and anxiety. Their use of astrology is in no way a departure from their roles as Buddhist priests, or as some kind of side practice outside of their normal Buddhist practices; in fact, astrology sits very comfortably within Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Most important is the idea of upaya, meaning “expedient means” or “effective way”, which is a concept that is central to my role as a Buddhist priest: it comes from the Way of the Bodhisattva, whereby a teacher must find the right “language” with which to teach the way out of suffering and into awakening. “Language” in this sense means using a system of signs and words and practices that a fellow pilgrim will be able to understand and apply to their own lives. That is, what if you came to see me at Wabi’an to talk about your spiritual path, using English as our language of communication, and then I answered you in Japanese? Even if what I had to share might really help you on your path, speaking to you in a language you couldn’t understand would be a worthless and unskilful reply. There needs to be a translation for us to be able to communicate and be on the same page. My work as a Buddhist priest, committed to passing on the wisdom of my teachers to you, requires finding the right tools, the right translation ‘software’ to share this important knowledge. So astrology can be seen as a particular kind of “language” that can be used as an effective tool in offering the keys to enlightenment. It is upaya in action.

Furthermore, in Esoteric Buddhism, everything in the cosmos is seen as a manifestation of  enlightenment and whatever aspect of the cosmos a person chooses to venerate or as a focus of their meditation reflects qualities and energies within themselves. For example, venerating Kuan Yin as the deity of compassion and love, is honouring our own capacity for compassion and love that we want to draw into our own lives to help guide us towards enlightened happiness. So in focussing our spiritual attention on the stars, from whose stardust we are literally composed, we are bringing that cosmic energy into our own consciousness in order to expand our awareness out beyond this tiny object called “me,” into a recognition of our connectedness with all the universe. Every single object and element in the cosmos is an embodiment of Buddha, the awakened mind.

Star Mandala

Star Mandala

Actually, there are many many Buddhist sutras (sacred texts) that include astrological data about how to find the most auspicious days for performing spiritual and religious activities. This aspect of astrology is very important in Tibetan Buddhism especially, which has a very complex astrological component. Also, one of the defining characteristics of a Buddha, an enlightened being, is to be able to suspend time and to see the past and future lives of others. There are many Buddhist stories and legends that incorporate seeing into future lives as a way of explaining karma; that is, how your present actions will have future consequences. So the idea of divination generally is quite deeply embedded into traditional Buddhism, but because this doesn’t quite fit with the Western rational, pragmatic leanings found in Western Buddhism, these stories are not seen in English-language accounts of Buddhism. I have noticed that many writers in English about Buddhism avoid anything that might sound irrational or not in keeping with our practical rational Western way of thinking 😉

So, for me, regardless of arguments about the ‘truth’ of astrology, I find it fascinating to work with and also deeply respect the wisdom of those sages who compiled these methods over many hundreds of years during a time when humans were generally much more in tune with the energetic physiology of the cosmos and in harmony with nature. I want to help you to find that harmony in your own life, so I incorporate astrology into my own practice and in personal consultations. I hope you too find some resonant symbols in Buddhist Astrology.

My Blind Good Samaritan

Winter sky

Winter sky

I was visiting my son in Geelong for a week and I went into Melbourne on my last day, in order to do a bit of research on Japanese-Australian history at the Victorian Archives, before flying out that afternoon. I had planned my trip out to the airport – down to the last minute and down to the last dollar, leaving just enough time and just enough money to get back home again. I had to walk from the Archives to the nearest train station, which would take me one short stop into the city, from where I would take the airport bus. However, when I got to the station, which was unmanned, there was nowhere to buy a ticket and when I used the station phone to talk to a rail employee, I was told that there was a new system in place which meant I had to buy a travel card for $6 and then add the minimum of $5 to it in order to travel. But I was on my way out to the airport and I didn’t have time to walk the distance to the airport bus and I didn’t have enough money to pay $11 to travel one stop!

It seems this station is nearby to a training facility for the sight-impaired and a blind man who was walking onto the station platform heard me talking to the station employee and offered to help me out. “Look,” he said, “I know it’s illegal, but it seems pretty crazy to have to pay so much just to go one stop, so if you sit with me on the train and an inspector comes along, I’ll tell him that you’re my carer.” Well, I didn’t want to miss my flight, and time and money were running out, so I thanked him and we sat down together and chatted while waiting and travelling on the train.

My Good Samaritan told me that had been a builder and lost his eyesight about twelve years ago when he found out his son had been sexually abused by a priest: he became so angry that he actually burst the veins in his eyes and went blind! Since that time he has become very active in support groups and lobbying to help to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other fathers. He said that he found great comfort in his activism and it helped to channel his anger and frustration, so much so that these days he’s actually much calmer and relaxed than he was before he went blind. He makes incredibly intricate ornamental wooden boxes, one of which was in his bag, just finished, that he showed me. It was  beautifully and very delicately engraved using modern technological instruments that actually talk to the user. He told me that his grandkids all lived nearby to his home and visited frequently and he felt his life was rich and rewarding in ways he never imagined possible. “Don’t get me wrong,” he smiled, “I’d still rather see, but I appreciate my life now in a way that I never thought possible and so to some extent I’m actually grateful for my blindness – there were so many things about myself that I just didn’t see before, but now I do!”

When we got to the central station, I walked – guiltily – through the turnstile with him, but actually no one even asked who I was or stopped me! My Good Samaritan then proceeded to lead me through the station and take me to the airport bus station. He quickly and efficiently navigated his way by using his stick along the raised guidelines on the ground, and I followed along one step behind like a little kid. When he deposited me at the bus station I asked him if his home was nearby. “Oh no,” he laughed, “I live another 80 kms on the other side of the city. I just thought I’d better first get you to your bus safe and sound so you wouldn’t miss your flight!” He then said goodbye and walked back towards the train station.

Geraldton wax - harbingers of Spring

Geraldton wax – harbingers of Spring

I was so grateful for his generosity, and it reminded me too that help can come from the most unexpected sources. In one of the Buddhist sutras that I study, the Kuan Yin Sutra, it says that the deity Kuan Yin will appear to whoever needs help in whatever form is needed at that moment. It then recites 33 forms that are examples of her manifestations, including the ones we might expect such as gods and goddesses, monks and nuns, but also in forms that we might not expect such as children and animals, but much more surprisingly is that Kuan Yin may even appear in the form of criminals and demons and monsters! In other words, if our eyes are open – that is, if our inner eyes and hearts are open – and we are not blinded by our own judgemental attitudes, then we will find whatever help we need on our path through life. It is our own prejudices that blind us to the goddess standing before us ready to help us on our way. See?