Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Altar

My altar is a shelf within one of the bookcases in my office. When I look around my office, it is a cluttered catastrophe, but when I kneel on my cushion, light the candle and incense, and invite the bell to ring, I am sitting only in my meditation place.

The items on an altar are not to be worshipped, they are there to serve as reminders of what we are sitting there for. Of what we are committed to. Of what we are recommitting ourselves to. They are fingers pointing to the moon. The moon is what is important, not the fingers. But the items on my altar are important to me nonetheless; they tell back to me my own story of spiritual journey. My altar is a bit cluttered, but so has been my journey.

Central, though in the corner, is the Buddha. I searched a long time for this Buddha statue. I read what Thay wrote about selecting a statue, and took his words to heart.

Be choosy if you ask a Buddha to come home. A Buddha should be smiling, happy, beautiful, for the sake of our children. If they look at the Buddha and don’t feel refreshed and happy, then it is not a good statue. If you don’t find a beautiful Buddha, wait, and have a flower instead. A flower is a Buddha. A flower has Buddha nature. (Being Peace)

I am drawn to this Buddha for several reasons. It is made of wood, still in some way living. It is hand-carved, carrying some of the life force of the artisan. The buddha's face is young, almost childlike; I have strong empathy with children. His expression is serene, almost bemused. I like the way the elaborate carving at the bottom, the lotus petals and swirls of robe, evolves upward toward simplicity, ending with a smooth, shorn head. Above that, the empty air.

As a backdrop, I have placed one of my paintings. When I look at it, I am often reminded that it was supposed to be a lotus flower, but it came out more like a water lily. I have intended for a long time to paint a new image for the altar, but I haven't gotten around to it. I painted this lily a few years ago when I was visiting a good friend whom I don't see often enough. It always reminds me of her.

The plump little figure is Jizo, the Japanese name for Kshitigarbha, the Earth Womb Bodhisatva. I'm not sure what "earth womb" signifies in the original Sanskrit, but in Asian Buddhist culture, Jizo is the bodhisatva who vows to bring peace in places of greatest suffering. He accompanies us through and between the six realms, including (especially) the hell realm. Thus he offers protection to travelers and to children, especially to children who have died. I bought this Jizo when I was involved in caring for a friend with cancer during her last six months of life. She was voyaging beyond where I could as yet go, but the spirit of Jizo within me could keep her company.

In front of Jizo are three "pebbles for my pocket" that I collected while on retreat. At my first retreat, I missed my husband and son terribly, especially my son -- I worried about him growing up motherless should something happen to me. The first hour, a pebble called out to me and I put it in my pocket, a reminder that I would be practicing for him while I was practicing for myself. The pebble helped me to release myself into the retreat. It turned out to be a very powerful retreat for me.

In the other corner, other faces of enlightenment. On the top, another image of Jizo, this time of a thirteenth century Japanese statue on display at The Asia Society Museum. I bought this postcard on my second visit, after bringing a friend there (another friend whom I rarely see). She has since embarked on intensive realm-journeying. I hold her in my heart-mind when I contemplate this image.

The triptych is completed with another image of the Buddha and an image of Jesus in meditation. I count Jeshua of Nazareth as one of my core teachers. For many years, I studied the research on the historical Jesus very deeply, and I retold the Easter story for children from this perspective. One aspect of Thay's teaching with which I resonate is his appreciation of Jesus. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thay writes:

On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors.

Jesus Bodhisatva is one of my spiritual ancestors, so I spent some time looking for the right image for my altar. I love this image, but I haven't been able to track down the source. One website says it is a painting in a Vedanta temple, somewhere. In one version of the image, there is an inscription, "(Jesus Christ in his yoga posture) 'He was there in the wilderness and was with the wild beasts.' Mark 1:13."

Also in that corner are a few lotus pods that I collected from the Botanic Garden, which were either lying on the pathway or floating in the water. I find them kind of creepy, though pleasing all the same.

I recently started using incense, partly in order to attract my son to sitting with me more often (which worked) and partly, to be honest, to add an element of novelty to my meditation. (Which worked.) Sometimes beginner's mind needs prompting.

Below the altar shelf is my Thay bookshelf.

The crystal marble on the mini "peace" vase is a gift from my son. (He has his own on his own shelf.) The vase was bought at the Battleship North Carolina Museum gift shop, in Wilmington, NC. I like the irony.

Above the altar shelf is my computer CD shelf. Mindfulness in everyday life indeed!

The shelf also serves to display my dharma/lineage name transmission certificate and another lotus pod. In the middle is a picture of the same friend whose final six months I was privileged to be a part of. Also a family portrait from several years ago, when my son's head still reached below my shoulder. And a piece of bark that I like. Just picked that up last week.

And above that, books, and Kwan Yin, the bodhisatva of great compassion.

I bought this small statue in Chinatown a few years ago, when our good friends from Madison, WI, were visiting us. Kwan Yin's vase of healing water is positioned over the picture of my deceased friend, on the shelf below. The two figurines are gifts from my son. They are still "his" but he wanted me to have them for my meditation. In the back, a photo of my son, one of the few that he approves of. (He likes the moody look.)

This is how it all stacks up:

Good grief, no wonder emptiness is so hard to realize! But I don't have the luxury of a separate room for meditation. It has to happen in the midst of the "full catastrophe." (To misquote Zorba the Greek: "Husband, child, house, everything. The full catastrophe.") Teaching and living the way of awareness in the very midst of suffering and confusion ...

And now you may view the full catastrophe of my office. What's in your catastrophe?

[Click on the image for an enlarged view.]

P.S. The large calligraphy hanging from the shelf was created by my Chinese brush painting teacher. It says "compassion," which is part of my dharma/lineage name, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart. I sign my paintings with that name.

Further reading on the the teachings of Jesus: For scholarly reading, I highly recommend the four-volume work by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. For more poetical reading (though based on scholarship), I recommend The Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell paints Jesus as a fully-enlightened Zen master.

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