The shrines of Taraloka: The land bears witness

This is the fifth 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

One of the most bewitching things about living at Taraloka is seeing how the land changes day by day, season by season. Between winter and summer, soggy fields transform into meadows with tall grasses. Taraloka has resided since 1985 on land that was previously known as Cornhill Farm, and its history as a farm is still very present – the community are always digging up old bits of wire, netting, plastic sheeting. The odd mysterious, rusted bit of metal. And of course the women who pass through Taraloka are adding their own artefacts to the mix, which may one day be unearthed by future inhabitants long after we’re gone: ceremonially buried vajras, accidentally dropped mala beads, and no doubt our own share of gardening equipment. How we use the land leaves its trace.

There’s a circular clearing towards the West of the land. It can be reached through the woods on one side, or by passing through a small grove of cherry trees on the other. It’s about 30 metres in diameter, and is watched over by a white figure of Shakyamuni Buddha – a representation of the historical Buddha of 2,500 years ago. Not long after I arrived at Taraloka, I spent a weekend camping in that clearing with Annabeth, who also lives in the community. In between sessions of an online retreat, a lot of time was spent having fireside chats and generally mucking about. That weekend stands out in my mind as a significant marker in our developing friendship. The Shakyamuni rupa was a feature of the time we spent there – a sort of guardian of the sacred space where we were practising.


Shakyamuni clearing seen through my tent.

I used an image taken that weekend on my introduction to this series of blogs, and somebody commented on Instagram that the rupa had belonged to Saddhanandi – a longtime Taralokan who lived here for twenty years, and still returns regularly to run retreats. When I asked her, she said it wasn't hers at all. Rather, it had been a gift from her mother to her dear friend Sanghajivani after the two of them had visited Saddhanandi's mum in Kent "Since then, I've always thought of it as a friendship rupa," she says.

Saddhanandi and Sanghajivani's friendship started when Sanghajivani attended her first retreat at Taraloka. A few years later, Sanghajivani joined the community at Taraloka (2004-2009). Saddhanandi told me a story of when Sanghajivani, who had previously owned a car maintenance body shop, offered to remove a dent from a retreatant's car (unfortunately that's not a service we're currently offering)!

When she received the rupa, Sanghajivani placed it in its current home in the clearing. "It's always been a special place to me," she recalls. "I moved to Taraloka about six months after my dog died, and her ashes are scattered in the woods behind the clearing. And I have a strong memory of the time Shubhavyuha and I set up a private ordination [space] there – it was a powerful experience. When I was mowing the paths, I would always stop in the clearing and take in the sky."

Sanghajivani and Saddhanandi speak very warmly about each other. Their friendship, which goes back twenty-five years, still continues with regular coffee shop meetings even though they now live at a distance from each other. I'm struck by the idea that the friendships I'm now forming may continue to deepen for decades – the treasure of friendship continually unearthed as part of the soil of this Buddhist community.


Sanghajivani and Saddhanandi

In an oft-quoted conversation with his attendant and dear friend Ananda, the Buddha says, “Friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.” I don’t know about you, but I often find myself thinking, Really? Everything? What about meditation? Ethics? Study? And yet, whilst some of these can to some extent be practised on my own, they are very much supported by being in contact with friends who encourage and challenge me.

Living and working within Taraloka’s context of shared practice is incredibly rewarding. It’s an absolute joy to know that I’m working for something I value so deeply, and I feel cared for and supported in a way that makes it possible for me to be generous and supportive to others.

At the same time, with seven women of diverse ages and life experiences living together and engaging in deep inner work, there are bound to be points of friction. We push each other’s buttons. We struggle to understand each other’s ways of doing things. And sometimes, we just need some alone time. In fact, the actual practice of friendship is not always easy. And yet, when you live and work together, when you are sharing responsibility for running a retreat centre, relationships are crucial. Even (or perhaps especially) in moments of conflict, I’ve found the depth of communication that happens between community members on a day-to-day basis awe inspiring in its honesty, vulnerability, care and compassion.

So perhaps there is something to this idea that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. After all, genuinely engaging with another human being – not just once, but over months, years, decades – requires integrity, generosity, patience, effort, awareness and wisdom... all qualities Buddhists strive to practice in ever-greater measure.

Shakyamuni Buddha is often depicted touching the Earth, in a gesture of confidence. Traditionally, he is calling the Earth Goddess to bear witness to his lifetimes of practice. Considering the rupa in the clearing, I wonder about the many friendships this land has seen develop since that initial act of one friend gifting to another. What acts of kindness might the Earth here bear witness to? And how might we fertilise the soil – wherever we are – with our own care for one another?