Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. I would certainly welcome the respite of fewer distractions on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature has its own ideas. After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out for me to take their portraits.
Seven days after his birth, when the Buddha’s mother knew she was dying, she entrusted her precious son to her sister, Mahaprajapati. You might think that raising the Buddha from an infant would be enough to make Mahaprajapati a figure of interest. But, in fact, very little information about her was available until Shambhala published The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati by Wendy Garling (photo by Jeff Klein above, her bio is below).
In this short video from a June 27, 2021 celebration of her latest book, Wendy describes some highlights of Mahaprajapati’s influence. An audio recording of her entire talk describes both the process and the contents of the amazing material that Wendy brings alive for us. Thanks are due videographer, Jeff Klein, for both recordings.
Drawing on literature of multiple Buddhist traditions as well as recorded oral stories, Wendy introduces us to a woman who was of considerable importance in the early days of Buddhism. Even though she was the respected Buddha’s “mother,” and Queen of the Sakyas, it took Mahaprajapati’s own nurturing wisdom to overcame barriers so that the Buddha’s teachings reached both women and men (as he intended) right from the beginning.
Mahaprajapati’s effectiveness, despite the cultural values of her day, should be of particular interest to us now, at a time when we must work together to make progress in solving so many critical issues. Perhaps the publication of this book at a time when we are so in need of the transformative power of nurturing wisdom is not a coincidence.
At the party, Buddhist scholar, Charles Hallissey noted that not only does this book make a major contribution with its subject matter, but Wendy also shows us how to approach sacred literature in general. We all must necessarily start from where we are. Wendy models the process of using imagination to explore what might have been true in another culture and time where unanswered questions remain. At the same time, it is appropriate to be very clear about the assumptions one is making. By bringing imagination as well as all of one’s heart and experience to such literature, it can come alive in a meaningful way while making it possible for new insights to evolve over time.
WENDY GARLING is a writer, mother, gardener, independent scholar, and authorized dharma teacher with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016, Shambhala Publications), and more recently, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha; The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (2021 Shambhala Publications). For many years Wendy has taught women’s spirituality focusing on Buddhist traditions, while also pursuing original research into women’s stories from ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature.
A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Wendy has studied with teachers of different schools and lineages, foremost her refuge lama His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (who gave her the name Karma Dhonden Lhamo), her kind root lama, the late Sera Je Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom she first met in India in 1979. Pilgrimage has played an important role in Wendy’s life: in 2007 she journeyed to the sites of women saints in Tibet, and in 2012 and 2018 to sacred sites of the Buddha in India. Her dream is to bring back the stories of Buddhism’s first women, reawaken their voices, and ensure that they are not just remembered, but valorized as integral to the roots of Buddhism. Wendy lives in Concord, Massachusetts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.
Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.
The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.
We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.
My town’s art association was holding a haiku contest. The haiku should refer to something the writer experienced in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts.
My feelings for this area where I live had deepened during the pandemic. I was more appreciative of kind neighbors and the caring friendliness of those working in local businesses. I spent more time in nearby parks enjoyed by children, families and dogs both on and off-leash.
As I walked along Massachusetts Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue looking for haiku from the contest, I came across several in the process of being painted. I said to one of the painters, “Maybe this has started something. Maybe there will be more poetry displayed in Arlington Heights.” The woman doing the painting agreed that should happen.
I noticed that some of the signs shop owners had put up in their windows felt a bit like poems. Looking back along the street, I knew it had happened again. I felt a new appreciation for this particular corner of the world.
According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA was once called “Devils Den.” Transforming its tangled woods with looming granite outcrops and a swamp into a usable park required considerable will, expense and effort. When muck and leaves began to fill the pond, the town once again secured funds to dredge it out and installed aeration devices.
It was particularly colorful when I began my frequent walks there last October. The ducks seemed to follow me. Perhaps they were only looking for handouts. I preferred to think they knew I cared about them. A few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow.
After the pond ice thawed, turtles seeking warmth gathered on a rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days. A pair of Canada geese acted as if the pond was their own private resort. A muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge. A bull frog’s loud voice startled a dog walking with its owner around the pond.
In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds were as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept atop a boulder. I wondered if the other ducks had left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. I saw other animals in the park but not in the pond water. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – Sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested.
As if to ensure I had gotten the message about the larger threat we all face, as I left the park, I saw a squirrel lying by the side of the road next to a rock. it was still breathing. I spoke in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.
Sometimes I encounter moments that feel like poems. There is a clarity to them that has me stopping to notice. They can be small and quiet, easily missed. Nonetheless, every once in a while, such a moment can leave me breathless.
The first two spoke volumes without words but others inspired me to write haiku.
Heads up, dog coming
Grazing geese splashdown
Safe on Hills Pond
Taped to the arm of
A Menotomy Rock’s bench,
Mother’s Day balloon
Warm fall evening
Water tower lantern lit
People drawn like flies
You can see more images of this water tower event, and read about it here.
The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking. It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.
No live Christmas concert this year. It was simply not safe.
Park Avenue Congregational Church’s (PACC’s) Christmas concert had been going on for 29 years now as a gift to the community. Even though contributions were voluntary, it always raised funds for the maintenance of our treasured Skinner pipe organ and music program. Doing something now seemed all the more important. Christmas music could bring light to this particularly dark season during a global pandemic.
So we two coproducers put our heads together. A virtual concert might work given we had a great archive of music from past Christmas concerts. CDs and DVDs have a certain appeal. They can be given as gifts. Attending to them feels more grounded than clicking around in cyberspace, even though great music is certainly available that way.
We decided on “A Christmas Quilt” for this virtual concert’s theme; something you could wrap up in while social distancing at home, maybe with a favorite drink by a fire. The quilt image worked for the diversity we wanted and DVD images could be substituted for quilt squares.
But would people send in enough photos? We needn’t have worried. Photos poured in; children making snow angels, pies being baked, Christmas trees and sheep (we needed sheep). There were photos of the church decorated for Christmas, of choir singing, of our music directors playing instruments. Snowy landscape paintings by the father of a church member seemed perfect. We also found charming public domain art, period Christmas cards and images of composers and their scores.
The practical logistics seemed to be coming together as well. Or so we thought.
The folks who do such a great job of printing posters and programs for our PACC Concert Series had ordered blanks to print stick-on disk labels for the CDs and DVDs. The forms they ordered had a large hole that would land plunk in the middle of the square quilt “logo” that was centered on the disk labels.
With orders still coming in and time slipping away, the coproducers declared the larger hole DVD labels to be fine. But the Concert Committee member who had designed the labels, responded (and I quote), “We can use the wide, gaping, cavernous, quilt-eating, big-hole labels if you want ;-). I’ll Just close my eyes ;-).”
A new supply of smaller hole disk label blanks arrived in time. We also had some of the large-hole labels printed just in case. The DVDs were proving quite popular. In the last few days before Christmas, we were still burning DVDs like crazy, and then Christmas eve was upon us.
I was very touched by the two who volunteered to hand deliver CDs and DVDs around our town on Christmas eve in the middle of a pandemic when they could have been at home with family. But I will also never forget that wonderful comment about the cavernous quilt-eating holes.
Signs are sprouting up everywhere in my neighborhood near Boston. The presidential election is coming up soon and that would certainly inspire signs. However many serious issues concern us these days. I have never seen so many signs on my morning walks.
This noble and often charming clamoring includes statements of appreciation. It reminds me to never take for granted our precious right to speak what is on our minds.
When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil.
When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.
With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder.
Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.
Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.
For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.
It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.
When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers.
I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature.
This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.