The shrines of Taraloka: Dwelling in the mandala with Amitabha

This is the third 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

 

The usual way to arrive at Taraloka is via a half-mile-long road and through the car park, past the house and office, right up to the retreat centre’s friendly front door. Slightly dazed from our journey, we stumble out of the taxi with bags and suitcases, and find our way to our room. Slowly, over minutes, hours, or days, the stillness of the place settles into our bones and we begin to wander.

 

Where do the boundaries of Taraloka lie? The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of a boundary as a real or imagined line that marks the limit of something[1] could set Taraloka’s boundaries at the fences; however, it also makes room for more creative interpretations. Coming back from a walk along the canal, I’ve always felt I’ve returned to Taraloka when I can hear the gravel crunching under my feet. Something about the texture of the gravel and the path’s downward slope feels like coming home. And a moment later, at the edge of the woods, I am greeted by the peaceful, red figure of Amitabha – the archetypal Buddha of the Western realm – in the West of Taraloka, facing the setting sun.

 

Samantabhadri, who brought this Amitabha rupa (figure) to Taraloka, often walks the mandala of Taraloka on her retreats, marking out the directions – a soulful beating of the bounds[2]. In this ritual, the mandala is a space of spiritual practice to be cherished and protected. And yet, as the definition suggests, the boundaries are imaginal: both elastic and porous. Even as the space of practice is protected, there’s a sense that compassion flows out into the world.

 

In the case of the Amitabha rupa, the cosmic springs from the ordinary: it came from a garden centre in Norfolk. “I was enjoying afternoon tea there with my mum,” she recalls, “who now had dementia but still responded to the Dharma. I bought the rupa and placed it in her garden, looking out towards an ancient oak tree and a cornfield.’’ After her mother went into a home, Samantabhadri took the rupa back to her own little back garden near Colchester. She then brought it to Taraloka with her when she moved there in 2008. Since then, this red rupa has dwelt in the far copse, a little set back so that you can enter its space, maybe bow, maybe place an offering.

 

When Samantabhadri moved to Taraloka, she had already been coming there for twenty years – almost since its inception! She first came to Taraloka on retreat in 1987, returning whenever possible – which as a teacher meant during summer breaks and other school holidays. “I would go on retreats I didn’t even want to be on, just to be at Taraloka!” Over the years, she became a mitra (friend of the Triratna Buddhist Order) and was ordained in 1995. In 2014, after living at Taraloka for six years, she became chair.

 

Samantabhadri’s story evokes a strong sense of lineage. ‘’I was ordained by Sanghadevi (Taraloka founder) and lived with Ratnasuri (another founder).” Although she no longer lives at Taraloka, Samantabhadri returns frequently to lead retreats. “For me, the continuity and even the growth of the project, particularly in a time of deep crisis and challenge, is an act of faith – for women practising the Dharma and for Buddhism as a whole.’’ She adds:  “Over the years, with all these women practising on this land, the rupas holding the mandala have weathered. A presence has developed, an atmosphere, which can be felt physically and spiritually. And what happens here influences our consciousness as well. This deepening presence reminds me of the words of the naturalist J.A.Baker about 'a point of pilgrimage in my journeying through the countries of the mind.'[3]

 

For Samantabhadri, the mandala is not simply the physical space of Taraloka, but “the love that arrives.” The red figure of Amitabha is associated, among other things, with a boundless love that reaches across time and space; and with a discriminating wisdom that sees what is unique and beautiful in all things. That a rupa from a Norfolk garden centre, weathered by a deeply personal journey, now resides in the West of Taraloka’s mandala seems to perfectly encompass the teaching that our own lives – full of love, loss, growth and connection – can be unique gateways to the sacred.

 

To walk the mandala of Taraloka, then, is to acknowledge the imagined line that marks the limit of this land; to allow the benefits that arise from one’s journey within that space to spread far and wide; and to generate within one’s self “... a point of pilgrimage in [one’s] journeying through the countries of the mind.”

 

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/boundary

[2] An ancient custom of walking the boundary of a place, sometimes tapping landmarks along the way, to create a shared mental map. Still practised in parts of England and Wales.

[3] Baker, J.A. 1967, The Peregrine, William Collins, London.