Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Western Quarter

There is a wooded hill directly behind my house occupying about twenty acres and rising a hundred feet or so above the valley floor. The slopes are covered in trees. Three paths lead to the top; one on the north, one on the south and one on the east. The center of the hill is grassy, open and park-like. To have access to such a place, which is bigger than many urban parks and far more secluded is a good dream. I moved here to get my family out of the crowded, spiritually sterile and criminally overpriced suburbs of New England. Nineteen years ago, after having lived on this land for a year, my sons helped me begin tracing a circular path through the woods around the crown of the hill. At first they just followed me as we shuffled our feet and kicked leaves out of the way. Then we raked and set up rough little altars that were generally oriented in the cardinal directions and sat a little metal Buddha statue on each one.

Four years later, after a lightning bolt struck the northern altar and burnt it to the ground, my good neighbor Rigdzin replaced the old stumps with a simple slab of sweet cedar laid across cedar posts. The ladies sewed altar cloths in bright solid colors, one for each of the four directions. These cover the wood and are replaced about once a year. Gradually, each altar was outfitted with an incense burner, a bell and dorje, prayer flags, a conch, flowers, a turtle shell, a bench and many other offerings.

According to the Vajrayana mandala, spring is associated with twilight and the western direction so today I sat on the bench before the fire altar at sundown. Two tall oaks, one red and one white, frame the seat. A small mossy circle around the altar and bench has been raked free of leaves, but we are in the woods. A fair mixture of oak, hickory, poplar, and tupelo with white flowering dogwoods illuminating the understory. The land falls steeply away into a dark valley toward the creek before quickly rising again. Another heavily wooded hill of the same height rises a few hundred yards to the west with trees so tall that even here on the crest of the hill, I feel as if I am still in a valley; the density of the wood and spring foliage conspire to raise the horizon so that everyday fewer beads of orange solar fire bleed through the new growth.

The bench I sit upon features a large blood red triangle bordered by a two small disks, one red and one white, symbolizing sun and moon. The western altar is associated with the element of heat and illumination, so the fading cloth and tattered prayer flags between the trees are all shades of red. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light holds a bowl of immortality nectar and Guru Padmasambhava sits before him, brandishing a dorje vertically before his chest, the Diamond Axis which does not change or die. A chubby Hwa Shang lounges and laughs.

Offerings include two perfect flint arrowheads possibly fashioned by Chickasaw hunters discovered in local fields which echo the triangle shape. A shiney black core of obsidian from the highlands of Guatemala , a dense igneous stone from the top of a 13,000 foot volcano, lava rocks from New Mexico, sandstone from Canyonlands in Utah, a delicate conch with a good sharp tone from the Gulf of Mexico, a clear finger of crystal emerging from a fist of white quartz with a few smooth red stones from the Colorado Rockies, various shells, beads and many crystals.

This is the dimension of the lotus, the blessings of the ever youthful Padmasambhava, who along with Great Silent Shakyamuni, is considered an earthly manifestation (nirmanakaya) of Amitabha. According to Indo-Tibetan lore, the natural beauty of the peacock's tail is a result of her ability to consume poisons. During this dusk of transition from cold of longest night to heat of longest day, things are seen in an ever new light. The heat and energy of desire is transformed into discriminating awareness wisdom. The true nature of perception is revealed as infinite light.


Along with the Mahayanist expansion of the buddhist sangha to include layman in the common era, there also evolved an arsenal of upaya (skilfull means) including the use of celestial bodhisattavas such as Avalokitesvara as a devotional focus. The tantric cartography of these principles gave rise to the double-dorje mandala associated with the peaceful deities of the heart center.

One of the earliest forms of such devotional worship and focus in Buddhism was the cult of Amitabha. The Buddha of Infinite Light and his retinue occupy the western quarter of the mandala. Some aspects of Amitabha's qualities may have originated in Iran where prior to the time of the Buddha, the Zoroastrians had developed the HOMA ritual. A sacred barbecue was combined with the use of a vegetable intoxicant. With the coming of the teacher Zarathustra, the use of the sacrament was criticized and associated with moral excesses. His popularity and the politics of the day led to abandoning the psycho-actives at least at public gatherings, but they kept the barbecue ritual central. The energy of the teacher's physical presence and spiritual influence around a communal meal was to replace what in some circles, had degenerated into the obscuring stupor of mundane intoxication. The terms homa and the soma (of the rishis), are cognate.

If not earlier, the Zoroastrian strain of the fire puja practice eventually migrated across the Hindu-Kush with the Parsis around the same time that Padmasambhava was visiting Tibet. It is likely that both he and they were fleeing Islamic oppression. India has had contact with 'lands beyond the Indus' since the times of the Mahabharata (5th c. BCE) and fire rituals were old hat, and were even performed by Brahman priests at the time of Sakyamuni. The Buddha taught his listeners the inner meaning of such ancient practices and openly criticized the superstitious, corrupt and spiritually inefficient rites of the old tradition and the caste system in which it operated.

The Western Pureland tradition blossomed on China's Mount Lushan in 402 and the mantra of Avalokitesvara, a bodhisattva in Amitabha's retinue, was chanted by the Tibetan King, fifty years before Padmasambhava came to Tibet Over the centuries since the Buddha's passing, various sacred forms had evolved to help practitioners recall the teachings and to invoke the spiritual presence of the teacher. But it seems that the actual practice of buddhist fire pujas began after Padmasambhava began working on the construction of Samye, the first monastery in Tibet. Originally, it was the smoke from burnt offerings which carried the essences to the host. The fire puja was intended to pacify demons both internal and external, obstructing worthy efforts. Padmasambhava had very likely been exposed to both Zoroastrian and Manichaean (with its legions of devils) teachings in his homeland and possibly adapted elements from indigenous Bon shamans as well.

An interesting note on the possible geographic location of Oddiyana, long assumed to be in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, although supportive archaeological evidence does not yet exist;
According to the late H.V. Guenther in Wholeness Lost, Wholeness Regained, "There is no evidence for either Alexander Cunningham's or Giuseppe Tucci's identification of Uddiyana with the Swat Valley in Pakistan. On the contrary, all the evidence points to Central Asia south of the Aral Sea. What they overlook or deliberately ignore is the unanimously accepted tradition of Padmasambhava's birthplace being associated with a lake and the overwhelming frequency of the ending, -ana in Central Asian place names, for instance, Sogdhiana, Drangiana, Ferghana, and so on, and even the name Urgensch (see Edgar Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus, p. 73). It therefore seems to be more reasonable to connect his birthplace with Sogdhiana, situated around Lake Aral, and to take note of the fact that the Sogdhians were highly educated people whose religion "was a synthesis of many creeds and currents, incorporating elements of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Christianity, together with Greek and Indian mythology. Trade with China was entirely in their hands and their outposts and settlements were scattered practically all over Chinese Turkestan" (Edgar Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus, p. 54). This synthesis, if not so say, syncretism is quite evident in Padmasambhava's own writings. It is more than likely that, when the Sogdhian civilization was crushed by the Arabs, he came as a "refugee" to Tibet and, in order to protect his relatives, who were left behind, declared himself to have neither a father nor a mother.

1 comment:

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

You write so well and described your home surroundings so beautifully in the first few paragraphs.

It sounds as though you're very happy there.

I found you on SU and followed the link here.