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Guest post – A Totem of Green Magic – Kit Berry

May 28th, 2009

In April I was interviewed about my books by Damh the Bard for the Druidcast, and not long after, kitharePhillp talked of Stonewylde in one of his blogs. I was then invited to contribute here, and when I looked back at other guest-bloggers’ entries, I noticed ‘The Hare’ written by Penny Billington in February. Penny referred to the possibility of a “totem of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times” and asked, “Has the whole of the UK gone gaga about hares?”

She’s so right. A few years ago hares were quite obscure, but now they’ve gone the way of dragons and fairies – they’re everywhere! The story I want to share with you starts about nine years ago when hares were certainly not everywhere. They knew their rightful place in the year 2000. If you were very lucky you might see one or two in the far distance in a field, hiding amongst the furrows or skimming across the grass. Hares are understandably very wary of humans and it’s rare to see one close up. You definitely didn’t see them in every gift shop from Glastonbury to Glasgow.

This event happened at a time in my life when I was at pretty low ebb. It was summer and my mother had recently died after a long battle with cancer. My life was directionless and desultory. Nothing was right. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was walking in some woods on my own. Shafts of sunlight shone through the high canopy of beech trees, creating pools of light on the path ahead. I was lost in thought when suddenly, right in front of me, I saw it. A great golden hare sat completely motionless about two metres away, staring straight at me. I froze, fully expecting it to leap out of sight. But it didn’t. It just sat there and looked me in the eye. The sun glinted on its fur, picking out all the gold and making it appear to gleam. Its huge ears were very pink where the sun backlit them, and I could even see the blood vessels in the thin membranes. Its eyes were like amber lozenges and its nose and long whiskers twitched. I could hardly breathe, terrified of moving and scaring it away.

The hare and I gazed into each others’ eyes for a good couple of minutes, maybe longer. I’d barely ever seen a hare before this and never close up. It was absolutely amazing. Then, slowly, it turned from me and loped off down the path. I watched until it was out of sight, and then took a deep and very shaky breath. I was immensely moved. I felt so privileged, but more than that – I felt changed. Something quite profound had happened to me in those few minutes.

I since discovered that the hare is a creature of transformation. In folklore it’s a shape-shifter and has strong links with both druids and witches. There are many tales about the hare, and of course it was also an integral part of the Spring Equinox/Ostara celebrations, later to be downgraded to an Easter bunny. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but I certainly felt transformed by my encounter. I began to research about folklore, nature, local history and my life started to change and open up. There’s more to this story of course, but it was that magical golden hare that set me straight on my path at a time when I needed a new direction and sense of purpose.

I’ve heard that many people have a life-changing encounter with some form of wildlife. There’s something about that level of intimacy and understanding with a wild creature that alters ones perception. You feel both humbled and elevated at the same time, and very much part of the web of life. It’s hard to describe but I know now that I’m not alone in this. Based on my experiences, and the enthusiasm and interest in Stonewylde I’ve encountered during my travels and dealings with folk, I’m launching a new project soon called “Reconnecting with Nature”. It seems to me that many people feel a deep need for this in their lives. The time has come for those who’ve lost touch to get back to living closer to the Earth – to be aware of the seasons, the weather, the beauty and power of nature.

One of the reasons I believe Stonewylde has found such an ardent and fast-growing following is because it reveres our deep connection with nature. It portrays a community where, without any sentimentality or pomp, nature and the Earth are honoured above all else and everyone lives close to the land. The popularity of the books amongst non-pagans has made me realise just how much people want to rediscover simple pleasures such as lying on your back watching the clouds or feeling dew on your bare feet. As Philip himself says, “We draw inspiration and spiritual nourishment from Nature.” I think many now appreciate just how much they need this spiritual nourishment. We live in a time when it’s becoming increasingly apparent how living in a materialistic world is shallow and unsatisfying. And damaging to the soul.

I’m hoping my project, which will initially comprise of a website and talks around the country, and maybe a book in the future, will help ordinary folk to reconnect and rediscover these rich experiences. I’m looking for anecdotes such as my encounter with the hare and would love to hear anyone’s story, however simple. Please contact me via my website www.stonewylde.com and tell me your tale, in confidence of course, with anonymity assured. I’m hoping to launch the new Reconnecting with Nature site at the Summer Solstice so do get in touch with me soon. I think Penny Billington was right – the hare is the totem of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, because we’re living in a period of huge transformation. For everyone whose life is lacking it, there’s Green Magic a-plenty to share. Join me and follow the Golden Hare.

Kit Berry, author of The Stonewylde Series Web: www.stonewylde.com

Guest blog post – from Mark Townsend – Part 3

May 27th, 2009

Since leaving the officialdom of institutional Churchianity I’ve had plenty of time to think through some of the questions that have bothered me for years. I’ve also been able to gather and devour piles of books from all faith perspectives, traditions and philosophies. Some of them fall into the category of what I call ‘Cosmic Christianity’ or ‘Pagan Christianity’. The latter might seem a contradiction of terms. However the books I refer to have helped me to recover a missing element of the Christ story, which is also a miraculous bridge to my new magical and nature based spirituality. Here is not the place to go into these theories. However should anyone reading these words care to treat themselves to a potentially liberating read, do go and get a copy of The Jesus Mysteries by Tim Freke and Peter Gandy or The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur. But be warned – they might change the way you look at everything!

Tom Harpur kindly gave me permission to quote his beautiful Seven Principles of Cosmic Spirituality within my latest book:
1. The entire cosmos is the manifestation of Divine Mind-every molecule, every cell, every creature, every rock, tree, mountain, planet, blazing star, whirling galaxy and universe of galaxies.
2. We are all an integral, interconnected part of the whole cosmos and our own inner world is a holograph of the cosmos within us.
3. One basic datum underlies every religion under the sun, the principle of Incarnation. The Word or Logos, God’s self-expression made manifest, has given the light of its divine spark to every mind/soul coming into the world. Christians call this the Christ or “Christ in us.” Other faiths have different names or modes of expression for this same inner reality.
4. Every religion whose ethical core is summed up by the word “compassion” or “loving-kindness” to all other creatures without exception has a vision of the truth and is a valid “way” to Transcendence.
5. No one faith or religion-whatever its claims may be, alone has The Truth.
6. True cosmic spirituality is steeped in, flows from, and derives its most powerful analogies and metaphors from the natural world – from the tiniest bit of dust to the spiraling stars above.
7. The core aim of cosmic spirituality is radical transformation, both personal and societal.
Tom Harpur’s official website is www.tomharpur.com
Mark Townsend

Guest post – The Wizard Within 2, Mark Townsend

May 26th, 2009

“Be still!
Can you hear him?
Stop for a moment… close your eyes… be here NOW!
Are you aware?
There is a forest… an ancient wood… a scary sacred place in you.
It can seem like an overgrown jungle of thoughts – densely compacted trees and bushes smothered in twisted vines and creepers.
These are the intertwined confusions of memories, assumptions, fears, beliefs, prejudices, judgements, failures and successes.
They are the many layers of ego clothing we’ve dressed in over the years. They form the background noise of our mind. Sometimes they are quieter, but sometimes they deafen us, ruling out any clarity of vision.
Be still!
Be here NOW!
Notice the voices blowing like wind through the trees…
Be aware of the echoes of arguments, unfinished plans, inner dialogues of confusion, and the incessant demands of the inner citric.
Notice them and the notice that you are noticing them.
See, they are NOT you. They are just remnants of past experiences and dreams of future hopes…
Be still!
Be here NOW where neither past nor present exist and then you will be ready to meet him.
Meet who?
There is an inhabitant within this scary sacred wood – a dweller who is real. Someone lives here whose presence transforms it from a frightening jungle to an enchanted forest.
He is quiet… he waits for you to stop and come to him.
He is not forceful.
He stands with lamp in hand, there in the deepest, darkest heart of the forest.
He is the wise One…
The true inner guide…
The divine voice…
The higher Self…
He is the Wizard Within.”

Mark Townsend

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming

May 25th, 2009

Here is the most powerful and relevant message you could possibly read at this moment in the story of humanity:

The Unforgettable Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, May 3, 2009

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a
simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate,
lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.

But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are
going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth
at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of
decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not
one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute
that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you
are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to
have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water,
soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch
the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that
spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue
that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per
hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really
good food, but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will
receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can
The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school.
It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and
that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And
here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not
possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know
what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it
was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my
answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is
happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data.
But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and
the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a
pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing
to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore
some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet
Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot
with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary
power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description.
Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action
is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses,
companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups
and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day:
climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger,
conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the
world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather
than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like
Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large
as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides
hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its
clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers,
children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns,
artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students,
incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets,
doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the
President of the United States of America, and as the writer David
James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such
a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and
the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is
true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall
us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform,
rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept
shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving
away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the
living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the
evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of
strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific
eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to
create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those
they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance
except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely
unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their
goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four
people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human
beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted
with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists
as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They
were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty.
But for the first time in history a group of people organized
themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would
never receive direct or indirect benefit.. And today tens of millions
of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits,
civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental
organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice
at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this
effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What
do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life
creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no
better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of
abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned
people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed
regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the
only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We
have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in
real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money
to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present
we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross
domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on
healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the
future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the
other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people
and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich,
it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago,
and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally
you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by
Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our
fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is
to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90
percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and
without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each
human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes
between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human
body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one
with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has
undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the
universe exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science
would discover that each living creature was a “little universe formed
of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute
and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body?
Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on
simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore
it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who
is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully
not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are
conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want
you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate
wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came
out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of
course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be
ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the
stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and
the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened,
not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as
complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done
great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring
creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging,
stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations
before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted
and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your
existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for
a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic,
not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make
sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your
life depends on it.

Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental
activist, and author of many books, most recently Blessed Unrest: How
the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw
It Coming
. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane
letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C.S.C., in May,
when he delivered this superb speech. Our thanks especially to Erica
Linson for her help making that moment possible.

See www.paulhawken.com

Guest post: Mark Townsend – The Wizard Within

May 22nd, 2009

The Wizard Within

Mark Townsend is an ex-Vicar, Magician and Author

When Philip invited me to contribute to this weblog my initial response (apart from feeling deeply honoured) was, ‘Who on earth am I to be offering something to such a wonderful series of articles, essays and ideas?’ But then I remembered what I’ve tried to teach in pulpits, lecture halls and retreat houses across the land – be yourself and trust in your inner voice.

So here’s something on that theme – listening to the inner voice (the wizard within):

What could be more wonderful than a life of sharing your most magical experiences and deepest longings with the world? What could be more satisfying than a daily workout at the PC, where you allow your creative inner voice to make meaning out of all the mess and muddle of life? What could be more therapeutic than to be still and listen to the (usually silent) ‘wiser you’ as he or she gently whispers in your ear?

For me writing is a natural and necessary part of who I am. I do not consider myself to be a particularly good writer, but am most definitely a passionate and committed writer. I write because it is the place where I can talk to myself. I write because I am always talking inside my head, and the computer keyboard is the gymnasium through which I can release some of that mental activity. I write because I have discovered that the often confused chatterings within my head are almost miraculously sifted and sorted as they eventually find their way from my brain, through my fingers, to the screen in front of my eyes.

But what led me to the writing life in the first place? Well, the real story begins about seventeen years ago when I began keeping a spiritual journal. It was really just a scruffy old diary into which I placed any experience that I felt was meaningful or important. I was, at that time in my life, preparing for ordained ministry within the Church of England, and such journals where encouraged (I will come back to this).

I was finally ordained in 1996 and obviously had to write many thousands of words every week as part of my job: letters to the parish magazine, sermons, addresses and all sorts of other things. Over time I began to realise how much writing helped me as a person. Take, for example, my sermons. I began to see them not as me giving text book answers to questions no-one is asking but as a public conversation with myself, a dialogue within my own head on which the congregation is allowed to eavesdrop. I started to see what a privilege and opportunity it was, and my weekly periods of preparation became wonderful adventures where I could explore each and every question, problem and topic, with a view to sharing the results on Sundays. Often my talks would end up giving the congregations more question than answers but, because I was prepared to be totally open about my doubts as well as my beliefs, folk warmed to them.

A turning point for me was in about 2001 when I was asked to lead a Retreat at Winford Manor in Somerset. I came up with a retreat based on the theme of human failure and how to look at our bumps, bruises and brokenness creatively. As a magician I decided to use illusions and visual tricks as metaphorical object lessons for my teaching. I wanted the attendees to be somehow re-enchanted and plugged back in to the deep feelings of magic and wonder they would have had as children yet probably rarely experienced as adults. The title for the Retreat ended up The Gospel of Falling Down, and it was this that formed the heart of my first book (of the same title). In fact I had stumbled across something that has become a hall mark of my ministry: the combination of the theme of brokenness and the experience of real magic. I am passionate about magic and I am passionate about enabling people to live with and even love their imperfections.

Part of my preparation for the Retreat involved re-reading my entire spiritual journal to see how much my understanding had changed over the years, but as I read it something shocked me. There was a very hurt, angry and often darn right whining voice within my words, and it was my voice. The voice was extremely self-critical, negative, and highly defensive. It was as if I thought the whole world was against me. There were huge chunks of self-flagellation: “Oh God why am I such a little sh*t?” And, “Why do people hate me so much?”

A few days later I decided to read it again and this time I detected something else – another voice – a more grown up and peaceful voice. I had accidentally discovered what spiritual teachers and psychologists have been teaching for years; the fact that we all have a deeper, wiser and more mature voice within our consciousness. It’s just that we usually play out our life scenarios through the more shallow and immature self of the ego. As I read on I saw how this wiser self almost answered the brattish questions and complaints of the whining self. I now call these two voices the ‘little-me’ and the ‘Divine-Me’. The reason I am telling you this is that it is precisely the Divine-Me that I now try to listen to when I write. It is as if the very act of writing unlocks and enables this voice to be heard. So the greatest inspiration for my book was the discovery that I have (and that we all have) a natural form of inner wisdom that can be tapped into. I find it so exciting.

In my book The Wizard’s Gift, which was an attempt to build a bridge between the Christian and the Pagan worlds, I call the inner voice ‘The Wizard Within’. I am convinced that everyone can write and that everyone can be inspired because we all have that inner guide. He / she is there waiting to be discovered. Trust me; there is a Wise Wizard within you! If you don’t believe me then try this: sit down, relax, breath deeply and with pen in hand, ask him to reveal himself. Then await the inspiration!

Mark Townsend

Mark’s website is www.magicofsoul.com

The Animals of Northern Bavaria

May 19th, 2009

On the road…
One of the great pleasures of traveling and staying in other peoples’ houses, as opposed to hotels, lies in being able to explore their libraries and music collections. In Munich I stayed with Daniela and Geoffrey who have a small record label: ‘Singing Frog’.  In one of those lovely 6 degrees of separation experiences whereby you find you both know the same person, it turned out that we both knew the musician and sound engineer David Antony Clark, who lives in Muri Road, Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, and whose work appears on the Singing Frog label. We listened to his CD ‘Sex, Magic and War’. The CD was decorated with rock art and there was very little sex and war in the lyrics, but plenty of magic in the music!
And now I’m in Franconia (northern Bavaria), in beautiful rolling countryside with meadows filled with wild flowers and forests all around. And here I’ve discovered an inspiring book: Alastair McIntosh’s ‘Soil and Soul – People versus Corporate Power’.
Here he addresses one of the key issues of our times: how not to fall into despair and feel helpless in face of the environmental problems we face. Drawing on his experience of the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, which succeeded in ousting its laird, and stopping the creation of a super-quarry, Mcintosh weaves spiritual ideas, history, politics, poetry and economics into a book that helps us revision our role in the world. One reviewer says ‘One brilliant paragraph after another…This is the Hitchhiker’s guide to spirituality.’ What more could a reader (or writer!) want?

I’m here for a three day workshop in which we are exploring the bare bones of Druidry by working with the sacred animals of Celtic tradition and through mask-making and carrying out a Druid sweathouse ceremony.
Reinhard and Malou are members of the Order from way back and when I met them at the Order’s summercamp last year I felt an immediate connection. Their great love is theatre and art, and their home here is filled with fascinating books and over 400 musical instruments. In the basement they have created their own underground theatre, and they have a workshop specially designed for mask-making.
We have combined meditation journeys with singing, sharing, the old stories, poetry, a visit to an old healing well, and then last night until 10 o’clock mask-making. This morning we made an inner journey to the sweathouse while Malou played the harp, and then we gave birth to our masks, which had dried overnight.
As each mask was eased off its rock and clay base Reinhard played a Balinese bell-rattle as everyone whooped and shouted. Some births were easy, others were long and protracted and involved the use of a scalpel. Forceps were not required though! And now everyone relaxes in the sun as lunch is prepared… I might have some photos to show soon…

Guest Blog Post – Susa Morgan Black – Listen to the Trees

May 19th, 2009

Greetings all you lovely Philip’s-blog-reading people! Philip’s away from the OBOD office for a little while, so I’ll be posting some guest blog posts here in his absence. The first is a beautiful poem by OBOD member Susa Morgan Black (OBOD Druid, Northern California)



Listen to the Treesoakleaf

Listen!  They’re speaking!
Can you hear them?  Trees!
Boughs crackling and creaking,
Leaves whispering in the breeze.

Look!  They’re all around us, look!
An Arboreal Lodge, a Timber Society.
Inscribed in their bark, their sacred book,
Tales of forest magic, and woodland deity.

Under the moon in all her phases,
Trees gather in a nemeton, a Druid’s Grove,
And dance within the Faeries’ spiral mazes,
Where nature spirits gather to make love.

Which will be the last ten books you read in this incarnation?

May 11th, 2009

I was the first guest writer at a new initiative here in Sussex: literary dinners at a house party in the countryside near to Lewes.

A dozen of us gathered and the evening was partly structured (everyone introduces themselves one by one around the table over the first course, I’m asked questions in the second course etc) and partly free-form. I found it very enjoyable and yet also slightly uncomfortable – but in a good way! I found myself feeling the same way a few evenings earlier when another writer/psychologist Anni Townend and I did an ‘evening in conversation’ together in Lewes. Why the slightly uncomfortable feeling? Because on both evenings we were trying something out for the first time. When you give a standard talk – say 40 mins plus 20 mins Q&A – the rules or boundaries are familiar to all, and you can relax into it because it’s familiar territory.

On both these evenings, though, we moved out of our comfort zones into the ‘stretch’ zone, where it’s not so familiar. But how lucky we are to be living in a time when we can experiment so freely, where we can explore different ways of doing things. The distinctive feature of both evenings was that we were attempting to ‘create conversations’. It wasn’t about ‘the expert’ giving a talk, but about creating participatory events that were focalised or focused by one or two people. And I think in both cases this worked – they were evenings of many conversations.

At one point in the literary evening we talked about blogs (which in the same way have changed the rules and now the boundaries aren’t so clear, which can make writers feel uncomfortable, but which is also grealy liberating for them) and come to think if it, the results are similar: a blog gives the opportunity for conversations to develop: between readers and between readers and the blogger.

At one point I asked everyone how many books they read – and that was so interesting. One person read two novels a week consistently – plus several non-fiction works a month, and she had two young kids and a husband too! Another mercurial and amusing chap who works in the city revealed that he used a set of glasses that plug into his ipod and that can project a movie that seems to be on a 42″ wide screen. Rather than read books he preferred to watch movies on his commutes, while clearing a bit of email on his laptop at the same time.

Another person who is a slower reader had calculated that at his present rate he only has ten books to go before he pegs it. He now finds it impossible to choose a book to read because he’s got to be sure it’s very good if it’s one of the ‘last ten books I read in this incarnation’.

I’m off to Germany until the end of the month, then Holland and then I shall hole up somewhere to finish writing the next book, so – as I did when I was in India in February – I’ve asked a number of friends to be guest bloggers. I do hope you enjoy their posts!

Meanwhile  you can see how the other guests of the dinner party experienced the evening, and find out about future parties you could join, here! (scroll to bottom)

Pilgrimage in the Jain Tradition

May 9th, 2009

One of the spiritual practices found at the heart of every religion, is that of pilgrimage. In Sanskrit, the term for pilgrimage, a sacred or spiritual journey, is ‘yātrā’.
In a yātrā one takes a journey to a sacred place, but the whole journey, and the landscape one moves through can also be seen as sacred, and in addition sacred sites are often clustered to form a particular ‘sacred landscape’.
A yātrā can take place in the outer world or in the inner world. In the inner world it can even occur within the sacred landscape of each individual’s soul and body. A key stage in Jain Preksha meditation involves such an inner pilgrimage (Antar Yātrā) in which one journeys in consciousness from the base of the spine to the top of the head and back again a number of times.
The inner pilgrimage can also occur within the sacred geography outlined in Jain cosmology. One sentence in Natubhai Shah’s ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ Volume II (p.31) presents a thrilling picture: ‘Rare accomplished humans may travel as far as nandisvaradvipa.’ Those humans who manage this feat will be able to make the most extraordinary yātrā to the fifty-two eternal Jina temples which exist on the continent of nandisvaradvipa, which forms the last of the concentric rings of continents that surround the middle world of jambudvipa.
Heavenly beings are the normal visitors to the 52 temples in nandisvaradvipa. They go there to worship the jinas, to celebrate auspicious events in their lives, and to undertake pujas. The swastika of rice grains made by devotees in Jain temples venerates these holy places.
Even if we are unable to reach these sanctuaries on this far continent, we are blessed with an abundance of sites sacred to Jainism in the world around us. There are now Jain temples in all those countries which the Jain ‘diaspora’ has reached, but the most sacred sites must surely be those that lie in Bharata and that have a historical connection with the Jinas or the saints who have followed the path they have revealed.
Many of these places have become holy because they have been associated with key events in the lives of the Tirthankaras, such as when they were born, became renunciates, attained omniscience or achieved nirvana. The place where it is believed the very first Tirthankara, Sri Rishabdev Bhagwan, obtained moksha lies at one of the most powerful, remote and sacred spots on the planet.

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

For Jains it is known as ‘Ashtapad mountain’ (Ashtapad means literally ‘Eight Steps’) with most writers considering it to be Mount Kailas in Tibet, which is also considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and followers of the indigenous Bon religion.
Opinions differ as to the exact location of Ashtapad. The author of a book on Kailas and Lake Mansarovar, Swami Pranavanand, who has made 35 pilgrimages to Kailas believes the mountain is both Meru and Ashtapada. The sadhu Rambaba, who performed the last rites of Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, believed Ashtapad was actually located on a nearby peak to Kailas, while Shri Jaswantrai Busa believes Ashtapad lies at a location between Lake Mansarovar and Kailas.
Ashtapad is one of the five holy mountains of Shvetambara Jainism, and to make a pilgrimage to it is long and arduous, but the other four are considerably more accessible: Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Abu, and Sammeta have all become popular and highly venerated pilgrimage destinations. In addition to these five holy spots, and the pilgrimage routes to them, there are many smaller, regional pilgrimage networks, connecting temples and shrines.
Two important distinctions can be made between Jain sacred places and those of the other Dharmic religions. Unlike Buddhist sites, which often house relics, such as bones or ashes, or Hindu sites which are often associated with sacred rivers, Jainism rejects the idea that physical relics are of value in worship, or that purity can be achieved through ritual bathing. Instead its sites are most often associated with auspicious events in the lives of Tirthankaras or saints, and with associated miracles or myths (atisayksetras).
The most important guide to sacred places, at least from the Svetambara perspective, is the ‘Description of Various Holy Places’, written in the 13th or 14th century by the monk Jinaprabha Suri. Today, however, there are so many temples and sacred places related to Jainism, any author is faced with a daunting task trying to describe them. Even the magnificent three-volume work ‘Teerth Darshan’, published by the Shree Jain Prarthana Mandir Trust in 1980, is unable to include all the sacred sites of Jainism.
Nevertheless, it is possible to see the pilgrimage sites of Jainism falling into two broad categories, with the most prominent Svetambara sites being in Gujurat and Rajasthan, and the most important Digambara ones lying in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Different authors attempt to tackle the subject of describing the holy places in different ways. Paul Dundas in ‘The Jains’ chooses to focus on one example from each category: Mount Satrunjaya (Hill which conquers Enemies) also known as pundarika, (Hill of the White Lotus) as one of the most important Svetambara sites, and Sravana Belgola (White Lake of the Ascetics) with its remarkable Bahubali statue, as the most significant Digambara sanctuary. Natubhai Shah in his two volume work ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ lists 28 of the most significant sites, and the three volumes of ‘Teerth Darshan’ feature 265.
A traveller might do well to consider three areas to visit, perhaps on three separate visits, since they are far apart geographically and each is rich in opportunities for pilgrimage: Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat combined, and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu combined. For brevity, just three sites for each of these areas will be mentioned, although there are naturally many more sites worthy of attention in each.
In Bihar a visit should be made to Mount Sametshikar, where it said 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras, and many monks achieved liberation. Starting at 5 am the keen pilgrim will walk for almost 18 miles up and down the hill, visiting the many shrines, before returning to their base in the late afternoon. It is said of this complex of temples and shrines that it is ‘Tirth-raja’ – the king of holy places. Pavapuri should be visited too: it is the site of Lord Mahavir’s last sermon and where he attained moksha, for which reason a great Diwali festival is held here. Here there are temples in the city and beside a lake, with one temple, known as the ‘Jal Mandir’, lying in the middle of the lotus-filled lake, to mark the spot where the last rites were performed for Lord Mahavira. A third site well worth visiting in Bihar is Rajgriha, where it is said that both the Buddha and Mahavira spent many a rainy season. For this reason, the site, which encompasses five peaks, is sacred to both Buddhists and Jains. According to the Digambaras, Lord Mahavira’s first sermon was preached here, and there are many Jain temples and two features which are found in other holy places of the Jains: sacred caves and stone blocks with carved footprints, to mark the spots where it is believed saints or Tirthankaras stood in meditation.
In Rajasthan and Gujurat, Shatrunjyaya, Ginar, and Mount Abu should all be visited for the beauty of the idols and temple architecture to be found there, but also for the spiritual atmosphere which surrounds them and which is said to confer blessings on all pilgrims. The description in ‘Teerth Darshan’ conveys this atmosphere at Mount Girnar: ‘The natural scenery of the mountain laden with medicinal trees and plants in a deep, wild and thick forest is enchanting and beautiful. After reaching the top, one feels so much suffused with delight and happiness that one does not wish to descend. In Svetambar Jain temples, the ancient sculptural art on walls and ceilings and various other spots reveals incomparable dexterity which is worth enjoying. On every dome, and on every ceiling and pillar, the art displayed is wonderful.’ (Vol III, p.576).

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu some of the most striking ancient statues are to be found. Once a visit to the great Bahubali statue and surrounding temples has been made, the pilgrim might like to venture a visit to the Villupuram area in Tamil Nadu, which was once a flourishing centre of Jainism. At Panaipadi village a 10th century bas-relief of Mahavira, identified only in August 2008, can be seen and nearby more carvings of the Jinas are to be found. Nearby too are the ancient caves near the village of Tirunarukondai, where it is said that Jain ascetics practised their austerities from some time between the 3rd to the 5th centuries, and inscriptions dated from the 9th century can be found. It is an important place of local pilgrimage. Finally, the modern-day pilgrim might like to travel to the Sri Ponnurmalai Teerth where it is said that the great Acarya Kundakunda practised his austerities. At the base of the hill is a temple with a beautiful image of Lord Mahavir, and on the top of the hill are commemorative footprints of the Acarya.
At all these sites the pilgrim will come to ‘Tirtha’ – sacred places – a word which means literally ‘to cross the river safely’. A Tirthankara translates as ‘a ford maker’ which shows us what an intimate connection there is between the ‘holy person’ and the ‘holy place’. Both offer us the possibility to ‘cross the ocean or river of worldly existence’ to journey through the ford created by the ford-maker to the other side. In recognition of this intimate connection, for a Jain, a visit to an ascetic is equivalent to visiting a holy shrine, and this is particularly so for the Sthanakvasi and Terepanthi sects of Sevetambara Jainism, who do not have a system of holy places, but for whom the monks and nuns themselves are considered destinations of pilgrimages.
Some devotees will have the means to travel to many places of pilgrimage, others will be unable to do so for practical reasons, and in Jainism no pilgrimage is considered obligatory or essential, as it is for example in Islam. However many benefits may be obtained from undergoing a pilgrimage, ensuring that we observe the precepts of Ahimsa (harmlessness), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Anekanta (non absolutism/multiple viewpoints) are undoubtedly of more importance, and the optional vow of digvrata, which limits a householder’s movements to a prescribed area, provides an interesting contrast to the concept of making outer pilgrimages to distant places.
Perhaps those of us who do not have the means to physically travel to many places of pilgrimage can aspire to the yogic flying powers of Sri Acarya Vidyasidh Padaliptasurji who in the 1st century composition ‘Updeshsaptahika’ describes how he used to fly daily to Ashtapad, Girnar, Abu and Shatrunjay by applying a special paste or ointment to his feet.

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