The shrines of Taraloka: Tara's grotto

This is the sixth installement of a series on the 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 approach is somewhat mysterious. From the retreat centre, take the path down towards the boggy boundary, which depending on the time of year might be full of irises or duckweed or bulrushes. In winter, the water is black and ice cold. Rupas guard the path on either side – at times visible, at times overgrown in wild strawberries, or camoflauged by recently fallen leaves. As you carry on, the trees grow thicker, creating a sun-dappled paradise, or a forbidding thicket depending on the weather (and your mental weather). Round the corner, and you come to Tara’s Grotto. Built from the wood of the old Tara Cabin, it houses a ceramic figure of Green Tara – slightly wild, and looking very much at home surrounded by remnants of offerings – bits of incense, a candle, oak leaves and feathers. Like most representations of Green Tara, she has one leg bent in meditation, and one stepping into the world; one hand in the mudra of complete generosity, and one in the mudra of fearlessness. To me, this rupa in particular evokes courage; the courage to meet what is difficult, frightening even, with compassion.

Tara's grotto in the woods

The ceramic Tara was made by Annie Ferris, a mitra from West Wales who is training for ordination. She has been coming to Taraloka since 2010. “I was looking to find a retreat I could afford, and because at Taraloka anything on top of the booking fee is a donation, I was able to come,” she recalls. “I got so nervous after I’d booked, though. If I hadn’t paid a booking fee, I wouldn’t have come... I often think about that.” Over the past ten years, Annie has become a regular at Taraloka – both on retreats, and coming as a volunteer to help out in between. “Taraloka became my Sangha. I loved the connection – it was like a second home to me.”

Drawing on her background in ceramics, Annie began creating models to explore what she was learning about Buddhism. “If there was something I wanted to understand more, I’d make it out of plasticine in the art room. Or I’d make a shrine. I’d bring in elements I was struggling to discuss. I might not have the confidence to talk about the thing, but I could talk about what I’d made.” For example, when learning the prostration practice as part of ordination training, she made a model of a prostrating self holding another self in its hands.

Annie's prostrating figure

When Tara’s Grotto was being built, Maitrisiddhi asked Annie to create a rupa for it. As Annie had been part of the work retreat that helped plant the woods where the grotto sits, she was the perfect choice! Annie’s process for making the rupa, like her sculpture process in general, involved ritual – listening to the Tara mantra with candles and incense whilst she sculpted. Although she had meant for the entire figure to be green, a trick of the kiln gave the leaves an autumnal shade, which only helps to better situate Tara in her surroundings!

Since then, Annie’s work has continued and includes a Maitreya rupa, as well as a project to produce the mandala of five archetypal female Buddhas. She also makes jewellery, which can be found in the Taraloka gift shop.

Considering Annie’s story, I’m struck first of all by the fact that Taraloka’s generosity-based economy made it possible for her to come on retreat in the first place. One part of living in the Taraloka community is asking for donations (dana) at the end of each retreat. And whilst we very much need the contributions of those who can donate more, I feel a sort of joy when someone who can’t give very much just gives what they can. I love that people can come here and learn and practice, regardless of their financial circumstances. It feels like an expression of Tara’s open-handed generosity.

And then, there’s the fearlessness that it takes to actually turn up on retreat in the first place! To set out on a spiritual path in the first place, to come back again and again, and to find a way to engage with what we find there. (After years of practice, I still sometimes get cold feet before I go... Do I really want to peek beneath the surface? Here there be dragons!) Jack Kornfield[i] tells the story of a lecture in which Chogyam Trungpa offered a refund to anyone who did not want to stay. “If you haven’t started [the spiritual life], it’s best not to begin... but if you have begun, it’s best to finish.” The longer I practice, the more I realise that beneath the joy and serenity associated with Buddhist practitioners is a deep acknowledgement of sorrow, and a steadfast commitment to meet the truths of existence unflinchingly, and with kindness – something that takes quite a lot of fearlessness! And yet, we each need to find our own way of engaging with those truths, and Annie’s beautiful creations help give her – and us – playful pathways for exploring what lies at the very heart of existence.

 

[i] Kornfield, J (2000), After the ecstasy, the laundry. Rider, London.