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Dear Order members and friends,
Being someone who only seems able to write when up against a deadline can be a little scary, as there comes a point when you just have to press ‘send’. This is what had emerged by 2am. It isn’t what I expected or set out to do, but what I happened to be reflecting on.
February has been spent mainly in zoom meetings and writing emails, with Covid lockdown beginning to wear a little thin. A major concern has been the potential impact on Triratna Trusts, of new legislation in India.
So this month I’m going to write from a rather more inward perspective. We’ve just begun a women preceptors’ retreat, online; which means 108 preceptors have signed in from all over the world. We’re exploring the theme of lineage, and this morning Sanghadevi, my private preceptor, introduced and led us through the Tharpe Delam Guru yoga. We’ve been doing an abbreviated version with Bhante, Padmasambhava, Avalokitesvara, and Amitabha above our heads, representing our teacher and the Trikaya; only I realised my version is Bhante, Green Tara, Avalokitesvara, and Amitabha all of whom appeared at significant times in my life.
Bhante was my first point of contact with the Dharma when, in 1979, two of my work colleagues (Manjuvajra and she who became Dayachitta) invited me to attend his talk ‘On Being All Things To All Men’ from the Vimalakirti series of lectures in London. I experienced him as talking directly to me and that I knew what he was going to say as he said it. I ‘grew up’ listening to his lectures and reading his publications as they came out, with the sense that each and every fragment of Dharma belonged to a whole. When I formulated the wish to meet Bhante personally, he manifested in front of me on a train platform, and we talked about community living. When I wrote to him in despair of ever being able to meditate, he phoned immediately to invite me to visit him; he reassured me that insight doesn’t only arise within meditation, suggested I took an extended break from it, and talked about right livelihood. I was ordained in the cross-over year when he stopped being preceptor but still chose our Order names; and I became Ratnadharini, with the rider ‘as in the Lotus sutra’. I especially remember visiting him in the Urgyen Annexe at Adhisthana, a year or so before he died and the quality of attention he brought to our conversation, with his fingers pressed together and pauses while he considered my questions. A year later his body was lying at the foot of the Refuge Tree in the Amitabha shrine room, and he seemed to have more completely taken up residence in the Tree itself.
In 1989 I found myself on a two week ordination retreat at Taraloka, wondering who my yidam (the focus of the sadhana practice I would be doing as an Order member) might be. The night before my ordination I was an expanse of sandy desert dunes that cradled an oasis, towards which a caravan was making its way, and I knew I was Tara. I had not been particularly drawn to her, but in retrospect I could see the many signs. I took up the self-visualised form described in the photocopied single paragraph I was given, and later checked with Bhante how the mantra should be recited. I hadn’t anticipated that he would actually chant it himself, but of course he did, and I came away with the experience not of a particular ‘tune’ but of the very heartfelt expression of a quality. Bhante’s own initial yidam was Green Tara, and I later asked if I could have him above my head when doing the practice.
By 2002 I was a member of the women’s ordination team at Tiratanaloka, and had been a private preceptor for a year. Dhammadinna and I had gone for a walk up to the reservoir and back down the forest track, and after a lull in the conversation she told me that I had been appointed as a Public Preceptor. Although I’d had a momentary premonition, it was still out of the blue as far as I was concerned, and quite a shock. Apparently the message ‘green light’ had come from Bhante, as a coded endorsement. I extended the walk in order to have some time on my own to absorb the news, and when I got back the 1,000 armed Avalokitesvara appeared on my shrine and has been there ever since. Green Tara is the quintessence of compassion, born of Avalokitesvara’s tears.
When Avalokitesvara despaired at the number of suffering beings needing help, and fragmented into 1,000 pieces, it was Buddha Amitabha of infinite light / love who witnessed his earlier great vow and reformed him with 1,000 arms and 10 heads, with Amitabha himself as the 11th. Amitabha also appears in Tara’s crown, and so it feels natural to me to regard him as the uppermost figure manifesting as Dharmakaya.
These figures have gradually emerged as a coherent pattern in a moving landscape of significance. For many years I was allergic to any form within meditation and I haven’t thought of myself as particularly ‘visual’, so it’s been a mysterious process.
I have also tended to think of myself as a ‘mindfulness of breathing’ rather than a ‘metta bhavana’ kind of person, and yet the breakthroughs have always been in the arena of ‘transcending the subject / object dichotomy’ – as the phrase goes that thrilled me when I first heard it – and haven’t always arisen within meditation. A formative experience of being in direct mettaful communication with everyone, with no differentiation into ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, initially arose during an early door knocking appeal with Aid for India (now Karuna Trust) and lasted several days. Unfortunately it also set a very high bar for what I thought an experience of metta should be.
I know many of us have been supported by being able to participate in online retreats during these challenging times, and hopefully this has nourished inner lives as well as keeping us sane and connected. I’ve begun to reflect on the empty nature of pixels!
> View February’s ‘Features from the College’