This is the fourth in a series on the stories behind the shrines around Taraloka, and the people 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
Let’s begin with a story. Long ago in India, a monk called Nagarjuna was walking beside a deep lake. Now, this wasn’t just any old lake, for in its unfathomable depths was a kingdom of Nagas – magical serpents and guardians of great treasures. As Nagarjuna approached the edge of the lake, he could see something from the lake approaching him, rising out of the depths. And suddenly, there before him was the beautiful and strange princess of the Nagas, who had summoned him to give him a gift: secret wisdom teachings that the Buddha himself had stored there seven hundred years ago, until the world needed them. These mysterious teachings pointed to the nature of reality beyond all dualistic ways of thinking, and became known as the Prajñāpāramitā– the Perfection of Wisdom. So beloved were these teachings that over the years they began to take on the form of a woman – not a young woman, but a wise mother. Indeed, Prajñāpāramitā became known as the mother of all Awakened Ones.
The origins of Prajñāpāramitā may be read as mythology, but they point to an important truth – that wisdom can appear from our depths, sometimes in surprising ways.
A visitor to Taraloka would not be here long before she encounters the two-metre rupa (figure) of Prajñāpāramitā facing a sculpted mound of earth, with a pond just the other side. My favourite time to visit her is the morning, when her dew-covered form looks like it is made of clay. I find her challenging, otherworldly. Her plinth raises her high enough that I have to look up at her, whilst her gaze is inward, her hands perfectly balanced in the Dharmachakra mudra (turning the wheel of the Dharma). She conveys a softness and a wisdom that goes beyond my ordinary ways of thinking.
This particular rupa of Prajñāpāramitā is made from a cast created by Buddhist artist Sagaravajra, based on a replica of a 13th – century Javanese figure. He began the sculpture on an arts retreat, when he was living at Rivendell retreat centre in Sussex. He had never sculpted before. “The whole process began with reaching into a bag of clay,” he recalls. Over the next four years, Prajñāpāramitā began to take shape, and by the end of his time at Rivendell Sagaravajra had made a silicone mould and a first cast out of cold cast bronze. The original clay model was buried – given back to the Earth.
In 1996, Sagaravajra began a four-and-a-half year retreat at Guhyaloka retreat centre in Spain, where he lived in a yurt perched on a scree slope under the holm oaks – a trip that was financed by the sale of the first cast. He cast a second Prajñāpāramitā, which lived in front of the yurt during his retreat: “Having made her outward form, I wanted to discover her inner character and essence.”
Towards the end of his time there, he had a breakdown and found himself unable to meditate, so he began work on a plinth for the rupa and a nimbus to go behind the figure. “At the time, it seemed an intuitive process; a sort of inner compulsion as well as therapy – grounding and doing something with my hands,” he says. “In retrospect, having created a form, I needed to create a place for her to be.” The sale of another cast gave Sagaravajra the resources to move back to the UK.
“The next step seemed daunting. I knew that I needed to create a sanctuary for the figure but this seemed implausible given I was in an extremely fragile state with no resources. The Buddhafield Festival of 2001 provided the exit point from Ghuyaloka. Its theme that year was ‘Secret Journeys to Sacred Places.’ I knew that I had to be there! I found out with only 9 days' notice and the rupa arrived by removal lorry onto a field at Shepton Mallet.”
The Prajñāpāramitā figure immediately drew attention and became something of a devotional focus for the festival goers, who paraded her around the site on a litter. A few days into the festival, a man asked Sagaravajra if he would like some land for his sculpture, and encouraged him to enter the rupa into a spiritual arts festival competition. Following the competition, the man offered Sagaravajra an acre and a half of land in Devon. Incredibly within only a few days of leaving Spain, he had been given the land to create the Prajñāpāramitā sanctuary. A few years later, he and his partner began developing land nearby into a forest garden. Curiously, when digging a pond for the garden, they discovered an underground spring bubbling up – much like the rising up of the Naga princess!
From her humble beginnings in a Sussex basement, the Prajñāpāramitā rupa was moving out into the world. Some time after Sagaravajra began his sanctuary in Devon, Taraloka’s cast was commissioned. I spoke recently with Karunavapi (whose name means lake of compassion), who was instrumental in bringing Prajñāpāramitā to Taraloka. Karunavapi was a community member and bookkeeper at Taraloka from 2000 – 2005, and now lives off grid in the mountains of Spain.
“I’d seen Sagaravajra’s cast of her at Buddhafield and on his land in Devon, and I had a strong vision that we needed to have a Prajñāpāramitā here. I felt it was important to present the image of enlightenment in the form of a mature woman, as a balance to the various images of men, or of Tara, who is traditionally depicted as young.”
When she proposed the idea to the Tarloka council, they responded that she would need to raise the funds – about £2,500. “I don’t remember it taking very long,” she laughs. “I would just ring people up and say, ‘Can you give us some money?’ and a lot of people were very generous.” That generosity – and Karunavapi’s vision – has been a gift to thousands of women who have come through Taraloka since.
As for the location, when Prajñāpāramitā arrived, the large pond had only recently been dug and it seemed only right to have her close to the water... and perhaps the Nagas! The rupa was installed at Taraloka during a retreat devoted to Prajñāpāramitā.
Some historical accounts suggest that the figure of Prajñāpāramitā evolved from that of the Earth Goddess – an idea that is borne out by her epithet as the mother of all Buddhas. “When you look at her hands, they’re unfurling like fronds – one peeling up, and one down. Creating the clay model, I couldn’t just make an arm or a hand. I had to work out – what is it like? So the limbs are like elephant trunks. Her middle is like the trunk of a tree. And she has a kind of fecundity that I also find in my forest garden.” When I asked Sagaravajra whether he had taken any artistic license in his replica, he said that he had added mulberry leaves to her headdress – in homage to the local flora at Rivendell.
He also speaks about the influence of Sacred Geometry on the original Javanese figure, and therefore his own. “There are certain proportions, the placement of ornamentation, that bring the figure to life. Working on her down in the basement of Rivendell some nights, it seemed like she was breathing. If you look closely, there are descending and ascending strands of jewellery that give this impression.”
Like Nagarjuna’s discovery of the sacred teachings, Sagaravajra’s story – and that of Taraloka’s Prajñāpāramitā – is one of wisdom emerging from the depths. And yet despite Sagaravajra’s journey of giving form to the ineffable, there’s a sense of ungraspability within his journey. “Prajñāpāramitā’s wisdom is not obvious – it comes in at the periphery. Insights come from who knows where? How could I have known that reaching into a bag of clay would have life changing consequences? There’s a sense that I’m just following the golden thread and seeing where it leads.”