Kuan Yin Day

Dragon Kuan Yin

Dragon Kuan Yin

Just a reminder that next Friday (18th July) is Kuan Yin Day
Kuan Yin Day is held every month on the 18th to provide a chance for women to get together and talk about their own spiritual journey, to hear stories from other like-minded fellow pilgrims, to share a meal together and spend a couple of relaxing hours in the peace and gentle energy of Wabi’an, a Buddhist chapel nestled in bushland in Bouvard.
The event starts with some chanting by Cate of Kuan Yin sacred texts and prayers, which you’re welcome to join in or just listen to, followed by some quiet time in meditation. Then we have lunch for which everyone brings along a plate of something yummy. Regardless of your own spiritual practice, everyone is welcome to come along and share in this gathering.
Friday, 18th July 11:30am – 2pm (Wabi’an is open at 10:30am if you would like to come earlier for quiet meditation)
8 Bouvard Drive, Bouvard
I look forward to seeing you then ❤

Healing a Lost Pregnancy

Mizuko Kannon, Mt Koya, Japan

Mizuko Kannon, Mt Koya, Japan

Rituals of healing for the grief of miscarriage and abortion: In my experience, rituals performed in memory of an unborn baby, lost though miscarriage or abortion, helps to heal the deep pain of loss and to bring a sense of closure for many women, who often cannot even tell anyone of the dark secret they hold. This post is a reprint of an article I have written in June’s NOVA Magazine, Healing a Lost Pregnancy, which you can read online here (the article is on page 6).

The Water Babies

In Japan, nestled in a grove of trees or on the mountainside looking out over the ocean within the grounds of the temples that are dedicated to Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, you will find rows of little stone figures lined up along tiered benches. These statues represent the spirits of babies who have been miscarried or aborted; they are called “mizuko,” which means “water-babies,” because they have come from the waters of their mother’s womb and have returned back into the flow of life.

The statues are placed there by parents after they have participated in a memorial ritual at the temple, praying for a good rebirth for the baby and asking for forgivenness for not being able to give them a life at this time. The little statues wear tiny bonnets and bibs that are made by the old ladies of the village to keep the spirits of the babies warm. The parents often place gifts in front of the statue, such as toys, pinwheels and candy, along with letters to the baby written on small wooden plaques.

When I first encountered these grottos dedicated to the spirits of the water-babies, I was deeply moved because I had never seen such public acknowledgement of miscarriage and abortion in Australia. When I talked to the temple priest, I was impressed by his refusal to engage in any kind of moral judgment: he did not ask whether the pregnancy loss was as a result of a natural miscarriage or the result of the woman’s choice to terminate the pregnancy. His compassion was entirely focussed on helping to ease the grief of the woman who was suffering from the loss of her baby, regardless of the cause.

To me, this was in stark contrast to the situation in Australia, where there is a deep divide in social attitudes between a woman who has had a miscarriage and a woman who has had an abortion. With a miscarriage, a woman is encouraged to be open with her feelings and to receive appropriate support from her family, friends and society at large. However, if a woman has an abortion and suffers grief from her loss, because she may have complex feelings of shame or guilt, or feel she doesn’t even have the right to grieve, then she is left alone to carry her pain in secret and the usual ways of finding healing for her grief are closed to her.

When I returned home to Australia, as a Buddhist priest, I began to offer memorial rituals of healing for pregnancy loss here at Wabi’an, a chapel dedicated to Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. Every woman’s experience is unique and each memorial ritual is individually created to help her find closure for her grief.

Mizuko in bibs & bonnets at Hasedera Temple

Mizuko in bibs & bonnets at Hasedera Temple

Healing Stories

For many women, healing the grief of an early miscarriage is difficult because the baby just “disappears” and there is nothing tangible to mourn: When Laura had a miscarriage, she felt her grief as a great empty space within her, unable to find expression or closure. Although well-meaning in their support, her family and friends did not appreciate the depth of her grief, saying “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “You’re young – you’ll have a baby one day”. But Laura grieved for this baby, of which nothing remained. So as part of a memorial ritual, Laura made up a box of mementos, photos, and letters that gave her something tangible to bury in a special place that fully acknowledged and celebrated the baby’s life with dignity and honour. A year later, Laura carried another pregnancy to full term and gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

For many women, events much later in their lives may trigger the deep pain of suppressed grief: Jackie was 56 years old when her own daughter had a miscarriage. While comforting her daughter, Jackie became overwhelmed by a grief of her own that related to the abortion she had been forced by her parents to have when she was 16 years old, 40 years earlier. She had tried to forget all about it but suddenly, in sharing her own daughter’s loss, she grieved for the loss of her own baby all those years before. So a ritual of healing was performed that honoured the spirits of both babies, sending messages and mementos up to heaven tied to balloons, which brought Jackie a great sense of peace that she had finally acknowledged her loss and healed her own deep grief.

For many women, illness and fertility issues bring up feelings of having created bad karma from having an abortion: Christine was in her mid-30s and had been undergoing IVF treatment for some time, without success. Because she was having difficulty in conceiving, she began to believe that she was being punished for having had an abortion when she was younger. She had never told anyone about her abortion and was worried that the spirit of the baby was seeking revenge by preventing her from getting pregnant. After performing a memorial ritual to honour the spirit of the lost baby, Christine confided that she felt a huge burden was lifted from her by just being able to share her story and not being judged or condemned for the choice she had made. The following year, Christine gave birth to a healthy baby girl – naturally and without fertility treatment.

Letters written to mizuko babies on wooden plaques

Letters written to mizuko babies on wooden plaques

Rituals for Pregnancy Loss

Every woman has her own individual way of grieving and so each memorial ritual is unique. For some women, it is enough to share her story and be relieved of the burden of her secret, in which case she may decide to perform her own ritual in private. For others, a formally conducted ritual using traditional language and structure provides the sense of an important occasion that suits their need to express their loss as a life ceremony. In every case, I encourage the mother to begin the process by naming her baby and writing a letter that expresses how she feels and what she wants to tell the spirit of her baby.

Many memorial rituals are created using one of the elements of earth, water, wind or fire: for example, the focus of an earth ritual may be to bury something and perhaps plant a tree; in a water ritual offerings are made into a river, lake or the ocean; a wind ritual may involve using a balloon to send a message up to the heavens; a fire ritual is an ancient way of mourning though fire, smoke and ashes, or by lighting candles or incense. I have found that each person tends to naturally be drawn to creating a special ritual of their own through one these elements, or using this as a starting point for their own creative journey. I have helped to create rituals that involved painting a picture, sewing a quilt, knitting a story, playing music, writing poetry, scupturing an image, or making a photo album. With nurturing support, each person is able find their own expression of their grief and healing.

In the ongoing heated and emotional debate between pro-choice and pro-life lobbyists, it is the lonely voice of each individual woman, with her own unique experience and personal grief, that is drowned out in the political rhetoric. When a woman comes to me who is grieving the loss of her baby, I do not ask questions: Regardless of politics and religion, my objective in offering a memorial ritual is to bear witness to each person’s particular experience, to acknowledge their grief without judgement and to support their healing process. My role is to welcome each individual with compassion and respect for the choices they have made in their lives and to offer comfort and healing for their grief in a way that honours their life choices and their own spiritual path.

Although until now I have offered rituals only to mothers who have come to Wabi’an, I also encourage and welcome fathers who are suffering grief from pregnancy loss to seek healing as well.

 

Being the Rainbow

Anette's photo of the rainbow at Warrungup Spring

Anette’s photo of the rainbow at Warrungup Spring

Yesterday at our Kuan Yin Day gathering (thank you to the lovely women who came along and shared their beautiful energy and heartfelt stories that made the day such a nurturing time together), fellow pilgrim Anette shared a story about this wonderful photograph she took on Saturday of a full double rainbow across the Mandurah Estuary. Anette had been driving home when suddenly, after a cloudburst of rain, this glorious rainbow appeared: it was a full arch with a double rainbow that reflected in the still waters of the estuary. It was so breath-taking that she parked her car and got out and just stood there in awe of this beautiful scene. Then she snapped this photo before getting in her car to continue on her way home, feeling a sense of elation at having been witness to this special moment, even though she was unable to capture and share the full radiance of the experience in a single photograph. A moment later, as Anette drove away, clouds blew in and the rainbow disappeared, just as suddenly as it had appeared, but the feeling of awe and elation remained long afterwards.

I think it is very significant that the place where Anette “just happened to stop” was Warrungup Spring, the Aboriginal sacred women’s site where women had given birth to their babies for thousands of years (I wrote about Warrungup Spring in Sacred Places).

It is a wonderful blessing to be present in a sacred place and to bear witness to a glorious moment in nature. Sacred places are physical spaces within which there is a higher potential for spiritual transformation: perhaps this is because we know that it is “sacred,” which brings our awareness more fully to the experience or perhaps there is a deeper mystery present at an energetic level that permeates our being. Although the reasons for sensing the sacredness of a physical location remain a mystery (and instead of intellectualising about why this place is sacred), it is most important to bring our complete awareness into the body, into the heart, into the mind and simply open ourselves fully to the experience of the sacredness present in that place.

You can do this by relaxing your body and bringing your awareness into your feet connecting with the ground, drawing up the energy of the earth, feeling it streaming throughout your body; then bring your attention to your breath: gently following the breath in and out; breathing in the sacred energy of this place, breathing out and sharing your own energy, leaving the traces of your own sacred nature to add to the energy of this place. If you know of places that are considered sacred, it is important to visit those places with a meditative awareness – breathe, meditate, walk through these places and open up to receive its blessings and offer your own prayers, leaving your own spiritual footprint for the next pilgrim to find and follow.

Egret I met this morning at Warrungup Spring

Egret I met this morning at Warrungup Spring

Likewise, when you witness beautiful natural events such as rainbows, sunsets, moon rises, or share precious momentary encounters with native birds and animals, there is a moment of awe in which you are completely open and one with that experience. In that moment, all your cares and worries and preoccupations are suspended while you share in that connection with something greater than just “I”. It is in that moment when spiritual transformation is possible – you are open and momentarily there is no separation between what is ‘inside’ you and what is ‘outside’ you: there is just being completely within the experience itself. Just being the experience of the rainbow. Just being.

Sacred places and experiences are everywhere around us, all the time: we just need to be able to ‘see’ them. Step outside now and just look… then breathe… then just be the rainbow 🙂

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.