Friday, September 30, 2011

Quan The Am

"The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced wonderful wisdom and attained Enlightenment completely free of attachment. He entered emptiness, unobstructed, through the gate of liberation. Since there is nothing but Emptiness, (including the body, mind and all that exists), a Bodhisattva is never moved by eulogy or ridicule, slander or fame. Even war, famine or the bubonic plague are dismissed by him or her as illusions taking hold through karma. Letting go of all that seemingly exists on its own, independently of the mind, sets forth brightness; and the one experiencing it will not be intimidated."

From Dharma Master Lok To's Introduction to his translation of The Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.

Statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat in the courtyard of Long Khanh Temple, Quy Nhon City. Any tour of Vietnam should include this beautiful and little-visited place.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is, of course, the deity more commonly known as Kwan Yin, or, in Vietnamese, Quan The Am.
Notice that Master Lok To refers to the Bodhisattva as "him." This causes much confusion, because in popular imagery Kwan Yin is almost always shown in a feminine aspect, and most people believe Kwan Yin to be a woman. Technically, Kwan Yin is without gender, though in the earliest representations (as in the scriptures) she is normally a he.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keeping Yourself Inspired - What You Need to Do

I went to hear Robert Adamson, one of Australia's great poets, talk about himself, his craft and his recent Blake Prize-winning poem.

Robert Adamson and Judith Beveridge at the National Art School

It was a fascinating talk, and wonderful to hear an Australian writer talking about spirituality. All too few writers of any description are willing to open themselves up to matters metaphysical, so it was refreshing to hear some of the big themes being discussed in the enchanting dialogue between Adamson and Judith Beveridge, herself an acclaimed poet.
But what really struck me as the afternoon progressed was the idea of inspiration - it was a theme that Beveridge kept leading Adamson back to, and it was an incredibly helpful theme to an audience of willing listeners - many of them writers themselves. So here are some lessons about inspiration that I learned from Robert Adamson:

1. Just Keep Doing It
So often we feel really inspired, but when things get dull or difficult, when we encounter a discouraging word or an outright rejection, we can simply give up on our writing. I know this was a pattern I followed for about 20 years! Robert Adamson spoke of his first rejection, and how much it smarted, until he confided in an older and more experienced poet who told him to keep writing and keep submitting, and when you have exhausted all avenues, go back and start again from the top of the list!

2. Writing is an Adventure
It's not a job, it is something wholly more spiritual than that - it is a vocation. So when things get tough, when we don't want to open that file or take up that pen, remember that what you are embarked upon is not a task or a chore - it is a fulfilment of divine purpose, and a rare and privileged pleasure. Approach every writing task as an adventure in the human spirit. Embrace and love what you do, and never allow it to become mundane.

3. Keep a Journal
From the age of 11 Robert Adamson kept curious journals about birds. He loved birds and he bred pigeons, and so he recorded everything about them in his journals. Most people would think that was all mundane or childish material, but Adamson says that when he went back and looked at these journals he realised they were pure poetry. In his journals he was totally free. No-one to read or criticise or censor, he could write exactly what he wanted, and this freed him both as a writer and as a human. So keep journals and record whatever you want in them, no matter how mundane or silly you might think them.

4. Read the Classics
Just by reading Shelley and Blake, and later Yeats and Dickinson, Adamson realised what it was to be a poet, and realised his own potential for creation. It's easy to get lazy in our reading, especially, I think, in this distracted age where we demand instant gratification. But reading some of the literary greats serves as a discipline, an education and an almost-religious instruction in what it is to be exceptional, and to be an artist. Allow yourself to be lost in the words of the great writers of the past, and see what you might be able to discover in their creative worlds.

5. Have Mentors
Knowing that someone is older and wiser than you and has been through many of your torments is extraordinarily valuable, and perhaps people in this world don't realise the value of sitting at the feet of masters. I have had some wonderful mentors in my life, and continue to. I love learning from them, and offering them help, support and enthusiasm as much as I can. Adamson spoke about the guidance and influence of people like John Tranter and the wonderful Dorothy Hewett in his own life. They picked him up when he was at his lowest and encouraged him to remember who he was and what he wanted to do. He said that often all it takes is one person's faith in you to be able to change your whole life. So identify some people you admire, get to know them, and do all you can for them. It's a process as old as civilisation, and history proves that it works to make us become better writers and better people.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

7 Most Influential Buddhist Nuns

1 Sister Chan Khong - Born in 1938, she is a lifelong friend and devotee of Thich Nhat Hanh. Sister Chan Khong wrote a fascinating spiritual biography called Learning True Love. She lives in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's famous retreat in France.

2 Sister Annabel Laity - A quiet and scholarly presence, Sister Annabel was born in England and was ordained a nun at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village. She is an accomplished translator and Buddhist scholar.

3 Pema Chodron - Prolific author and Buddhist superstar, Pema Chodron is an American woman ordained in the Tibetan tradition. Resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist institute in Nova Scotia intended to train Westerners in the Tibetan monastic tradition.

4 Dhammananda Bhikkhuni - Probably the woman facing the most serious hurdles on this list, Dhammananda is a Thai academic who agitates for the recognition of full monastic vows for women in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. She runs a centre for women monastics (Wat Songdhammakalyani) in Thailand, though their ordinations are not recognised legally, socially or by the male Buddhist hierarchy.

5 Tenzin Palmo - Became famous after the publication of Cave in the Snow, which detailed her long solitary retreat in the Himalayas. Tenzin Palmo has been charged by the Dalai Lama with establishing full monastic ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition. She was born in London, and is ordained in the Drukpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

6 Robina Courtin - An Australian, Courtin was the subject of a popular documentary which brought her to great prominence in the Buddhist world. Laid-back and forthright, Courtin is a popular teacher whose special work is with prisoners. She has been a Buddhist nun for 30 years, but was raised a Catholic in Queensland.

7 Thubten Chodron - Another reasonably prolific author, her popular teachings embrace themes of ecology and social justice. Born in 1950, she is Abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington.

8 Dharma Master Cheng Yen - A slight and quiet Buddhist nun who only speaks Taiwanese dialect and is frequently in ill health, Cheng Yen is one of the most powerful and influential Buddhist leaders in the sinosphere, and is the spiritual head of the Tzu Chi welfare organisation that has a presence in diasporic Chinese communities across the world.

This list is incomplete and arbitrary - the world is full of incredible ordained women running institutions and working to spread their religion.
I am aware that there are gaps, and would be interested in suggestions for extending the list. The women on this list are all here because they are prominent in the anglosphere. I know there must be women in other traditions who are well known to, for example, Chinese or Korean speakers, that I have not included. Please tell us about them in the comments!
I also want you to know that the list is of ordained, celibate religious, which is why it doesn't include many of the prominent Zen and Insight Meditation teachers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

DESTINATION SAIGON hits the bestsellers list at Shearer's Bookshop

Excuse me for a brief moment of boasting, but I am so excited to discover that my book Destination Saigon, one of the most lighthearted and affectionate books on Vietnam you will ever read, has slipped quietly this week into the bestseller's list at Shearer's Bookshop on Norton St., Leichhardt.
How wonderful! I know that the good people at Shearer's have always been great believers in the book, and their enthusiasm has obviously paid off.
Many thanks Barbara, Tony and gang!