This is the second 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
I first came across Green Tara of the birch wood when I was here on retreat. Wandering through the trees one afternoon, I found her on a rough wooden bench, slightly overgrown with moss, foot outstretched as if stepping towards me. She’s about three inches high - small enough that I can forget she’s there, only to find her again; small enough to be completely hidden in the undergrowth, come summertime.
Green Tara is one of the most famous Buddhist images. With one leg bent in meditation and one stepping into the world, she represents both stillness and activity. Her left hand is in the mudra (gesture) of fearlessness, her right hand is in the mudra of generosity. Her activity is swift, but not frenetic. Her fearlessness is rooted in wholeness and faith. She both shows us how we may give, and challenges us to receive with grace. Perhaps because of her colour, I have always associated her with growing things, wild and balanced ecosystems.
Tara of the Birch Wood arrived shortly after the wood was planted in 2011 – on a week’s work retreat during which ten women planted over 1,000 trees donated by the Woodland Trust – Birch, Spindle, Rowan, Ash and others. I spoke recently to Janice, who cooked on that retreat, and about fifteen other work retreats over the years.
“I booked onto my first retreat at Taraloka in September 2011,” she recalls. “At the end of that week, I was talking to (community member) Maitrisiddhi over breakfast, who was saying she needed volunteers to help plant a thousand trees. I didn’t feel up to the physical labour of planting, but I knew I could cook – so I offered that!”
Janice spoke at length about the model of integrating work and practice. Each retreat would be devoted to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva, whose symbolism would hold the context for the retreat. Work was interspersed with meditation, and evening groups invited participants to go deeper into their experience of working together – the joys and the challenges it presented.
“People would look honestly at what was getting in the way of them enjoying the work... quite often it was a sense of comparison with others – a very human tendency, and very humbling to acknowledge! One thing that was immensely helpful was this ethic around downing tools when it’s break time – even if you haven’t finished. That you don’t just carry on. I’d never worked like that!”
Work retreatant Rachel says, “It’s been such an honour to be part of making Taraloka available to people. You feel like you’re nurturing Taraloka. There’s a sense of mutual care, care for something beyond yourself. Metta (lovingkindness) underlies the whole place.”
Work retreats have become a Taraloka tradition, a time when many hands together can make light work of developing the landscape – creating paths through the woods, planting a maze of yew trees around Prajnaparamita, planting bluebells, snowdrops, anemones and crocuses; as well as sanding woodwork and painting in the retreat centre. Many of the women involved in these retreats have come back year after year.
For Janice, the work retreats have been transformational. “There’s this phrase that’s been going round my head for years – a sort of teaching to stop bashing my head against a locked door and start opening it inwards... I found I was cooking with love in a way I haven’t done since my son was little. Coming back to Taraloka now, it’s wonderful to see how the trees have grown.”
Speaking with women who have taken part in work retreats, I’m struck by the parallels between their experience and the qualities Green Tara embodies. A stream of activity, grounded in meditation. The flow of open handed generosity, combined with the courage of allowing one’s vulnerability to be witnessed. Care for living things, always with attention to balance. Encountering Tara in the birch wood, I feel connected not just to her mythic qualities, but to their very tangible manifestation in the trees that were planted with love, and which are growing ever taller.