The Shrines of Taraloka: Answering the call

This is the seventh in a series of stories behind the shrines around Taraloka, and the women whose generosity, care and love have made Tara's realm what it is.

I pay homage to all the shrines and places in which the Bodhisattvas have been.

- Sevenfold Puja

In this series, we’ve been uncovering the stories behind the many shrines to be found around Taraloka. So far, these shrines have been in the landscape, but this time we’re exploring the story behind the rupa (figure) that appears on the central shrine on many retreats at Taraloka: the Thai-style Shakyamuni Buddha.

Ratnavandana brought this rupa with her to Taraloka when she arrived in 1992. She had bought it for £100 at a trade show in London – initially to be the rupa in her shrine room when she went on sabbatical.

“I was stopped in my tracks, quite literally,” she recalls. “There was something in his gentle beauty that made me feel like I could enter his reality. After speaking with the salesman, I went off, and couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was as though something was pulling me back.”

On the sabbatical, Ratnavandana recalls, the Buddha’s presence added weight to the practice of those who came to visit. “He seemed to call forth something in people.”

Ratnavandana first came across Buddhism in the 1970's when she had moved back to Cornwall from London. She was keen to go to a yoga class and her friend rang a teacher who happened to say she was going to a meditation class the next day for yoga teachers, so she would ask and let us know about a class locally.  Ratnavandana was axcited to hear this as she had been trying to learn meditation from a book so she rang the teacher back and asked if she could go. She didn't know but suggested she just turn up which she did. Recalling that class, she describes a feeling of coming into contact with Truth. “I thought: So this is what I’ve known all my life.” She was ordained in 1983, and has dedicated her life to practising the Dharma and sharing her passion with others.

Ratnavandana moved to Taraloka in 1992, the same year she became an anagarika (taking vows of chastity and poverty). At the heart of both steps was a desire to be of service to others. She brought the rupa with her, and it has lived at Taraloka ever since. When she left Taraloka in 1997, she left the rupa, feeling that he was in the right place; however, Ratnavandana has returned frequently to Taraloka since then, and is a regular retreat leader here. “To me, Taraloka feels like a spiritual home.” The rupa remains deeply significant to her. “I’ve had many teachings from him. He touches an inner call to go deeper, go further, to what’s possible.”

Speaking with Ratnavandana, I’m struck by how frequently she speaks about feeling called or pulled, and I’m reminded of the word vocation, which has as its root the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.” I’m also reminded of the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha represented by Ratnavandana’s rupa, who led a more or less conventional life (for a prince), until he felt a deep call to go in search of the solution to human suffering. How he mastered the teachings of one teacher and then another, but still was called to go deeper. I’m also reminded of myself – moments when I have known I needed something deeper in my life, which led me to turn up at a walk-in meditation class at the London Buddhist Centre, led me to ask for ordination, and led me to move to Taraloka.

These moments arise for all of us, if we are listening. We’re called to enter into a world that is so much bigger and more alive than we could possibly imagine.

As the folk singer Sam Lee says, “The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light... life, she is calling thee.”

As Ratnavandana says, “What’s important is recognising and responding to that pull. Giving it value.”