Excerpts from Paula Arai’s talk, “The Healing Power of Beauty”

January 9, 2013

“The places the eyes of the flesh see have a limit. The places the eyes of the heart see have no limit.” –Gyokko Sensei. The pithy yet profound words of an elderly Japanese Buddhist woman suggests the wisdom of viewing the world through one’s heart. When the heart looks out, it can see the boundless connections that weave everything together in a beautiful and vast web of compassion. The Dalai Lama suggests that, ‘Often it is through the expression and appreciation of beauty that we unlock the compassionate potential in the human heart.’ Beauty is the fullest manifestation of the present moment and it has the power to focus one’s being on the life-affirming aspects of the present. In other words, beauty has a seductive power to draw one to see the myriad of connections that embrace one in a universe of compassion.

The key to the healing power of beauty is to experience interrelatedness – not just have an intellectual understanding of it. Such is possible through complete body-mind engagement with a meaningful activity in the present moment. To experience this not only nurtures the self, but gives rise to a sublime joy in living. Being fully present requires having an open and accepting heart, which in turn cultivates gratitude because one can see from an expanded perspective. Beauty heals because it is an immersion in immediate and positive sensorial, somatic experience of the present moment.

The enigma is to appreciate the present moment as beautiful precisely because it is ephemeral. Contemplative arts can be experienced as a healing in so far as they direct one’s attention to the present activity with full body-mind engagement. Each motion is carefully crafted to be the height of respect and efficiency, every gesture meaningful. When treating everything with which one comes in contact with respect and awareness of interrelationship, one feels respected in return and supported by a vast web.

One of the dimensions of the practice of beauty as healing that is especially amenable to daily activities is the beauty of physical movements. Beauty in motion occurs when one acts with full mindfulness on the present moment, embodied awareness of the meaning of each movement, and treats everything with respect. Therefore, when doing domestic tasks as beauty-making activities – including hanging laundry, cooking, serving food, cleaning floors, and washing dishes – they become healing activities.

Beauty also sustains through its capacity to soften the rough spots in one’s heart, enabling one to be more flexible in living with present circumstances. Once one is aware of beauty in one’s midst, it works as an antidote to bitterness and it stops calcification in the heart. It acts as a solvent that loosens debris in the heart. Beauty can engage one further in the fullness of the present moment in which one can recognize oneself as an integral part, a participant. Perceiving beauty is an act of recognizing the value of something. In so doing, it awakens the beauty in oneself, to one’s bigger nature. In these ways, beauty helps one feel deeply connected and whole.

Whether engaged in a formal tea ceremony or enjoying a cup at home, tea as aesthetic mode of ritualized motion is about embodying tranquil beauty. In tea ceremony, artistry and healing come together in powerful ways.

Subtlety is especially treasured in the tea world. It activates your creativity. Tea teaches the method of moving in the most beautiful way to do a task. Tea centers on beauty. The aim is that it is carried into daily life. Tea becomes part of who you are, the way you move and see, what you notice. It takes a long time to cultivate this.

Let’s take a glimpse of this refined and subtle world of healing beauty through tea. It begins with the first step into the garden. Join me in visualizing the recently moistened rock path meandering through the garden, generating an inviting sense of fresh life, as we walk toward the tea hut. With each step, the strains and weariness of stressful demands are left behind, as each stone leads us deeper into the tranquility of the garden. On arriving at the well, pause to reflect on the carving in the stone basin: “I only know satisfaction.”

Reaching right hand to lift the long, thin-handled bamboo dipper is an occasion for reflecting on how it would feel if all one knew were contentment. Gingerly scoop water into the dipper and slowly pour it over your left hand.

After removing your shoes and placing them neatly out of the way, kneel at the tea room door and slide it open with both hands, showing high respect. While sitting in silence, drink in the carefully and thoughtfully arranged items. Feel respected. Someone cared enough to tend to each detail, creating a soothing harmony of elements that draw out the tranquil beauty of the season, time of day, and qualities of the relationships of those to be gathered.

Harmonizing diverse elements into an integrated whole is beauty-making activity in its highest and strongest mode. Expansive beauty provides a safe space for healing to occur. The larger the context in which one perceives oneself to be, the stronger the support one feels. When one feels alone and perceives things narrowly, it is easy to experience suffering. Beauty draws one’s attention beyond this illusion and directs it to the proverbial Jewel Net of interrelationality.

Beauty entices one to engage in an act with one’s full being, whereby the distance between things dissolves. 

January 9, 2013

Day 5 of the 13th Sakyadhita Conference

We woke up to fog so thick that my roommate thought it was snowing–and at 3 degrees Celsius, it’s cold enough to do so. My roommate and I have gotten into a pattern of having coffee and conversation in our room before going to the 7 am meditation. The first few days we started before 4am, then as we adjusted to the time difference it was 5 am. Today our bodies seem to be on Indian time and we slept until 6, which gave us only half an hour to chat over our cups of instant coffee. The first few days of instant coffee and whitener were a shock to those of us who drink gourmet blends,  but now we no longer notice the difference.

 

This is the first time I’ve been able to attend Sakyadhita; my academic calendar has always interfered. But this year I start teaching later and I decided not to miss the opportunity. I didn’t know anyone else who was attending but I knew I’d be with friends. And so it’s been. In Delhi, I was already in falling asleep in my bed when I met my roommate Barbara Wright. We introduced ourselves and started talking… and we haven’t stopped since. That sense of familiarity seems present with many of the people I have met here–people who hold lovingkindness and Buddhist ethics in the forefront of their minds.

 

Each morning meditation is led by someone from a different tradition. Today Jetsuma Tenzin Palmo was the leader. A few days ago she gave a workshop on meditation in which she said one thing that really struck me. I paraphrase here, “the ego believes that meditation will solve all its problems.” How true is that!

 

This morning she emphasized how important it is to relax in meditation. So nice to be reminded of that and so contrary to how I approach most things in life. As we came to the end of the sitting, she led us in a brief visualization and as we left the hall, I noticed how many people coming out had tears streaming down their cheeks. Tears of connection, tears of joy.

 

Another thing I’ve noticed here is the melting away of sectarian boundaries. In my observation, there seems to be little grouping of practitioners from the various traditions represented here. Theravada, Chan, Zen, and diverse Tibetan lineages seem to have checked any exclusivity at the door. True there are language differences, but lay and monastic, women and men (yes, there are a few) are drawn close to each other by their love of the dharma.

 

In finishing my post, I want to mention how inspired I’ve been by some of the papers presented. I’m still thinking about this morning’s panel on Buddhism and Social Activism. I wept when Karma Lekshe Tsomo described the sacrifices and hard work of motherhood as social activism. As a mother and a grandmother, I feel like I’ve waited a long time for someone to acknowledge that. It’s a far cry from the belief that lay women and mothers are spiritually inferior.  

 

Sarana Nona Olivia

Vaishali is not how Vaishali normally is the year round. The 13th Sakyadhita conference has permeated its air, its soil and its ethos. Despite the biting winter chill and very little protection from it like a fire or electric heaters, the participants are teeming to the venue of the conference with enthusiasm and spirit.
It’s heartening to see rows of smartly dressed Korean nuns in grey juxtaposed against the quintessential maroon of the Tibetan nuns; the ochre outfits of the Indian bhikkhunis in contrast to the black robes of the Japanese Buddhists; the rust coloured uniforms of the Taiwanese blending seamlessly with the all white ensembles of the Mae Chi women. Then there’s the differently styled Vietnamese contingent also in grey mixing in with a plethora of lay women dressed colourfully in jackets and trousers, silken scarves, embroidered shawls and pretty hats. There’s even a lady wearing a remarkably pretty traditional Mongolian outfit in mauve and pink. Together, the participants bring alive the conference. They bring alive this remote, sleepy village of Vaishali.

But the 13th Sakyadhita is not just about a visual feast of a variety of nun couture – it is about the great spirit of commitment and sacrifice that goes into taking these vows. It is about giving up ordinary material lives and choosing a harder, more challenging life…but one that is overwhelmingly rewarding, one that spells enlightenment, nirvana – pure freedom from the cycle of samsara.

Bhikkhuni ordination is a burning topic at the conference. The panel of presenters on the 8th of January all made concerted efforts through their papers to bring out the constraints that women face in seeking full ordination. Christie from Taiwan moderated the presentations in her usual warm, pleasant and forthcoming style. My paper was on the Transnational Bhikkhuni movement and highlighted the fruitful efforts made by women in countries like Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand and the USA to become fully ordained nuns and coexist peacefully alongside the male sangha. Lori Meeks’ paper looked at The case of Hokkeji in an attempt to recover nun’s voices from history. Caroline starkey’s presentation was on Dress and Liberation: Ordained women in Britain while Jampa Tsedroen spoke about the latest developments on the revival of Buddhist nun’s ordination in the Tibetan tradition. Last but not least, was Lisa Fancott’s presentation on proposing a program for women in Buddhism. 

The presentations were followed by a session of questions and answers where pertinent questions were raised about the limitations which women face in turning to the path. Full fledged ordinations are still a struggle for most women on the path and the conference is doing its best to shed light on the issue from all angles and perspectives. Perhaps by the end of the conference, we might see wholesome conclusions emerge from all the discussions. Conclusions that might be real time, adaptable and ones that might eventually guide the future of the Bhikkhuni sangha. 

Everyone attending the seminar, looks forward to attending the variety of workshops after tea-time. The participants are actually spoilt for choice! Each workshop is on an exciting, inspiring theme and one knows that by choosing a particular workshop one is surely forsaking all the other equally tempting topics. So then, for once, one allows one’s heart to decide where to go.

Not surprisingly, Prema Dasahara’s Tara Dhatu workshop seems to be the most popular. It is a workshop on simple dance movements done to the rhythm of the chanting of the Goddess Tara Mantra. The dance form helps the participant to reconnect to her inner self, to feel the outer burdens falling away and the inner bliss being released! It is no wonder then that after a spending considerable hours in academic and scholarly pursuit, the delegates look for a bit of spiritual dance and movement.

The popularity of the dance workshop by no means undermines the beauty and relevance of all the other workshops. There have been workshops on meditation, deep listening, animal compassion, white Tara, managing conflicting emotions, leadership for Buddhist women, the history of Vaishali, a photo workshop for Buddhist nuns, buddhist picture books children in Taiwan so on and so forth. Each workshop has a healthy attendance and participants come out of these workshops feeling more enriched and better informed.

Yesterday, Christie made a wonderful announcement of putting up a message board! It was badly needed! People are now making plans for onward travel after the conclusion of the conference.  They need to network with their colleagues and fellow travellers regarding joint travel and dates etc. Transportation is not easy here, so get all the lifts you can! 

Sometimes you need a message board just to trace a friend you made a day ago! With two delicious lunch spaces – the Indian and the Vietnamese – it is common to miss the person you are looking for even during the lunch break!

Plus, the message board is a great place to recover lost mobiles and bags!

The Vietnamese monastery deserves a sincere vote of thanks for catering to every need of every participant of the conference. From providing sumptuous food, some amazing afternoon tea, a marvellous venue, adequate workshop space and clean toilets the nuns and volunteers at the monastery deserve our warmest appreciation. A tangible form of our appreciation for their goodness would be to donate liberally into the Sakyadhita donation boxes.

Here’s saying three cheers to the marvellous spirit of the Sakyadhita and the women sangha! May it endure!
Vinita Agrawal

Meditation

Meditation for all Buddhist traditions together in the shrine room

Venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo


Venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Contemporary Nuns’ Oral Traditions in Kinnaur

Basic Buddhism in Songs: Contemporary Nuns’ Oral Traditions in Kinnaur. Linda La Macchia

1. At nine in the morning [a quiet time], as we sing a song about friends,

2. …, hail falls and a snowy wind blows.

3. If the hail wasn’t falling and the wind wasn’t blowing, the branches wouldn’t be moving.

4 … On the branches are flowers of ice.

5. …When they see the sun they melt.

6. … If rain falls, they absorb it.

7. Nectar! Nectar!

35. Today will come only once. We say a prayer.

36. What type of prayer? All of us friends,

37. …, If we have a long life,

38. …, we pray that we gather once again.

39. If we dies, we’ll have no chance to meet again.

40. When we die we will reach a very dark place.

41. The god of death will come with his weapon. We will be forced to go with him.

42. … We will go naked.

43. When we die only our cup of tea will remain.

44. If you remember death, you won’t speak a harsh word.

45. Friend and friend, we see our friends only in this life.

46. … There in no real [permanent] friend.

51. Today will come only once. So we say a prayer,

52, … , not only for this life,

53. …, but also for the next life.