Monday, February 12, 2007

That breeze might just be someone's compassion

Walking through the rugged countryside of Tibet, you would likely see long strings of tattered pieces of cloth hanging here, there and seemingly everywhere. The wind blowing down through a valley would gently rustle or fiercely flap them. And with every movement, the prayers they represent would rise up and flow to all edges of the world.

These prayer flags are strung from trees, buildings and bridges. They adorn stupas and protect travellers in dangerous areas. Everyone, from the most humble peasant to the wealthiest merchant, places prayer flags and understands their meaning.

They raise prayers to the Buddhas and the deities - not to be confused with our western concepts of gods and divine beings - like the ever popular Tara. Within Buddhism - and Tibetan Buddhism in particular - there are many deities.

Tara, the protector, is one of them. She has many forms, the two most common and popular being the White Tara and the Green Tara. She is called upon for aid and protection and also to grant wisdom. She is known for her swift response and compassionate strength.

It would be easy to assume that Tibetan Buddhists consider her a goddess - a part of a vast pantheon of many gods and goddesses much like the Greeks and Romans were known to worship - but that would be a wrong view of Buddhist belief. On the one hand, Tara is revered as a deity who has great powers for good. The tricky part is that she is also considered to be simply a female manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion, who is in turn considered a deity and also simply a manifestation of the Buddha nature inherent in everyone and everything.

In deity practice, the practitioner may visualize the deity before them to begin with, and later visualize becoming like the deity, and finally becoming the deity. That is to say, they become Tara - or whatever deity they are contemplating.

For a Tibetan Buddhist, this makes perfect sense. For a westerner - not so much.

What the westerner is likely to not grasp is that the manifestation of the deity is really a manifestation of one's self - a part of one's nature - and by visualizing or becoming the deity, the practitioner is cultivating the qualities of the deity within themselves. They are not becoming a god, or godlike, in the western sense, but are manifesting complete compassion, or understanding, or wisdom by first imagining possessing those qualities, then cultivating them and finally realizing that they were always there, but obscured by wrong views and misconceptions.

Despite the vast array of deities to be found in Tibetan Buddhism, it is not a multi-theistic religion at all. In fact, it is a non-theistic belief system.

The Greeks, for example, followed multi-theism. They had multiple gods and goddesses with supernatural powers. Some gods had more powers than others, but they all were separate from mortals and lived above them, wielding their powers over them.

Judaism brought out the idea of monotheism - although it wasn't the first religion to do so. A single god that was responsible for all the universe - it's creation, it's functioning and all within it. This god was all knowing and all powerful.

Buddhism has no such god. The historical Buddha was a mortal - a person - who was an historical prince. He gave up his riches to seek spiritual fulfillment. Along the way, he tried all the spiritual and religious avenues available to him and was never fully happy with any of them. Finally, he sat down, faced his own demons and came to the some realizations about the reality of the world. In short, he became fully enlightened. He didn't become a god, he became fully enlightened and in doing so took on - or manifested - qualities that could be considered godlike. Neither he nor his followers ever made claims of divinity - just awakening.

Anyway, that's all neither here nor there but rather a background for the whole prayer flag thing.

See, although the prayers upon the flags may be addressed to a particular deity like Tara, they are really more intentions and goodwill being sent out to all the universe. The intention of creating and spreading compassion is woven into the fibers of each flag and written on it's face in the form of a prayer or mantra. These flags are hung with the intention of benefiting all mankind and when the wind blows across them it carries that compassion across the land.

So, the same wind that is blowing down the valley in Tibet may carry those prayers across the land, to the ocean and over it and the next land. And those prayers might be on the breeze that gently tossles your hair as you walk from your car to the grocery store. Maybe the breeze you feel is carrying my prayers for you, or the prayers and compassion of a complete stranger.

Anyway, it's something to think about. And it's worth stopping to think about what thoughts, prayers and intentions you are sending out and who's hair they might be tossling in a parking lot, or in a high mountain valley.


thephoenixnyc said...

A beautiful post Shawn. Thanks. I have seen some beautiful prayer flags and wheels on my travels around Aisa, they really are special.

I especially like the Tibettan "Sky Burial" concept. While it may seem rough to Westerners it is a perfect embodiment of "from dust to dust"

Shawn said...

I like seeing old tattered flags next to new ones. It reminds me to think about the cycle of life thing. Just like the flags, people get old and worn by time and are replaced by another generation that continues the flow.

The Zombieslayer said...

Free Tibet!

Sorry. Had to get that out of my system.

Buddhism is neat. I've met polytheistic Buddhists, monotheistic Buddhists, and atheistic Buddhists. All are correct, according to Buddhism. Or so they explained to me. Kind of went over my head.

thephoenixnyc said...

Zimbie, I am what you might refere to as a polytheistic Buddhist.

tshsmom said...

Thanks Shawn; this cleared up a lot of confusion for me!
This is similar to something I do. When I'm troubled, I write all my thoughts out on paper. Then I burn the paper and watch the smoke carry my thoughts and confusion away.

One question. Does hanging my laundry out, act as a prayer cloth? I hate to think of the message my underwear could be sending to the cosmos! ;)

Laura said...

Eastern Philosophies just make more sense to me. Everything is accounted for, everything is connected. I think that's part of what drew me to pagan philosophy is its connections to Eastern thought.