This article is adapted from an interview with China Galland, author of Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna; The Bond between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion; and Women in the Wilderness.Inquiring Mind coeditors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker asked Galland to talk from a mythic standpoint about Buddhism and ecology, beginning with how she got started on her own path. She shares stories about the goddesses she has encountered and the practices connected with those goddesses to protect the environment.
My path seems inevitably to lead me to love what’s been excluded, rejected and unacknowledged, whether it’s a woman’s body or the Earth on which we have wreaked so much havoc. It’s the path of reconciliation. I was drawn into this by stories and ancient myths, especially those of alchemical change, taking what’s considered base and turning it into gold. Like the stone that was rejected by the builders that becomes the cornerstone in the New Testament, so much of what I had left out in my own life—my body, the Earth’s body, people of color—became precisely what I had to reconnect with and transform.
My first path involved reclaiming that joyful wildness that belongs to being human. In 1975, along with a handful of women friends, I started Women in the Wilderness, an organization of women in San Francisco exploring women’s leadership through guiding wilderness trips. It was powerful to go into the wilderness and to tap into a more direct experience of the Earth’s body even if I didn’t live in the wilderness.
I wasn’t simply a river guide and writer but also a single mother of three children and a survivor of domestic violence and abuse. I wanted out of that body. I became an alcoholic trying to cover up the hidden contradictions that I found myself living. In 1981, I began the path of recovery from addiction.
Taking up the practice of sobriety precipitated a spiritual crisis. I’d been raised a devout Catholic, but I’d left the church years before. I missed the Church terribly, but for me as a woman, it was impossibly oppressive. I longed for a spiritual home that was accessible, structured and daily. In desperation, I tried to reconnect with the Church by going on a silent retreat to Christ in the Desert, a wonderful, remote Benedictine monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. There I rediscovered Mary, but I could not relate to her; I knelt in front of Guadalupe and wept.
All the while, at home in my own backyard in Muir Beach, California, there were all these sweet bald people from San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm who hitchhiked over the hills between Muir Beach and Mill Valley. When I got back from Christ in the Desert, the next hitchhiker I picked up was the guest master at Green Gulch. That began my connection to Zen Center. I began to go to Sunday lectures, and soon I was going every morning, getting up at 4:30 to sit at least one period, sometimes two, of zazen before it was time to get home and get my children up and off to school.
I studied in the Soto Zen tradition there for a couple of years before I discovered that in traditional Buddhism it’s taught that you have to have a man’s body in order to be enlightened. Though the Western teachers I was meeting dismissed the idea, it gave me pause to discover this deeply ingrained belief in Buddhism. When I read some of the texts and prayers, I was further disturbed to see a woman’s body described with great disgust. How could I continue?
I didn’t know where to go if I left Buddhism. I loved Green Gulch and the people there and couldn’t imagine having to give up that community. Still, I also didn’t see how I could embrace such a distorted view of women. After tea one morning at Green Gulch, someone who knew my struggle took me aside and said, “In Tibetan Buddhism there is a female buddha, Tara, who vowed to be enlightened only in a woman’s body.”
This fragment of Tara’s story was like drinking water after a long, hard thirst. Instinctively I had always believed that a woman could be completely and fully enlightened, but this was the first time I heard that belief stated from within the Buddhist tradition. That sliver of Tara’s story set me on fire and helped save my life. And it propelled me halfway around the world to find out who Tara was.
In India, I interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama about the buddha Tara. He assured me that of course women could be fully and completely enlightened. He sent me for further instructions to Locho Rinpoche, the head of Namgyal, His Holiness’s monastery in Dharamsala. We had set up a time when Locho Rinpoche was going to tell me about the Twenty-One Taras, the different forms of Tara, her different colors—green, white, red, yellow and black—and what they each mean, but when I went to meet Rinpoche, he wasn’t there. You could say that I was left midsentence. That sentence was completed when I went to Switzerland two weeks later to continue investigating Tara and how she paralleled Mary in the Catholic tradition. Jack and Liana Kornfield had suggested I visit their friend Dora Kalff. Dora was not only a protégé of Carl Jung but a Tibetan Buddhist and personal friend of the Dalai Lama. She originated sandplay therapy and also sent her patients to the Black Madonna shrine outside of Zurich.
When I walked into Dora’s house in Zollikon and was taken upstairs, a Tibetan monk, Geshe Champa Lodro, was sitting in the window, the afternoon sun streaming in around him. The first thing he said to me was, “Do you want to know about the Twenty-One Taras?” My request for the teaching was being granted after all.
Champa Lodro Rinpoche told me a story about Tara that really opened my heart. He said that Tara had been a historical person just like Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, Abraham or the Buddha. Her name originally had been Yeshe Dawa, which means Wisdom Moon. In ancient times, Yeshe Dawa had become so developed in her compassion, her generosity and her wisdom that people came from all over to consult with her. Yet because of the belief in having to have a man’s body to be enlightened, people began to say, “Yeshe Dawa, the only difference between you and the Buddha is that you don’t have the male form. Therefore we beg you to please magically transform yourself in this lifetime into the male form so that you will be a buddha. If you can’t do that, please, please reincarnate in the male form. Then you will become a buddha!”
Tara knew they only meant well and replied, “I’ve thought about these matters for a long time and nowhere can I find what is male, nowhere can I find what is female. Worldly beings are always deluded about the differences between male and female. These are simply different forms of being, no more separate than a wave is from water. But, since most buddhas have chosen to come in the form of a male, perhaps it would be more helpful if I vowed to be fully and completely enlightened only in a woman’s body.” And so she was. Once Yeshe Dawa was fully and completely enlightened, she became Tara, the “Savioress.”
I loved that story. It relieved me of all burdens about male and female genders. And how Buddhist is this? Tara relied completely upon her own experience, against all the received tradition that said she needed to have a man’s body to be enlightened. Her vow has fortified me ever since.
Not only did Tara’s vow affirm my own sense of possibility, but I discovered that the Green Tara, the main form from which all other forms of Tara emanate, is a forest goddess. Tara’s twenty-one traditional forms all arise out of the Green Tara of the Khadira Forest. This forest is described as Tara’s heaven, the place where Tara has her palace amidst the trees. Tigers and antelope play together, the texts say; all the animals are at peace, like the mythical place where the lion and the lamb lie down together. Tara’s Khadira Forest gives us an image of the world transformed.
On my pilgrimage, I discovered other Taras associated with the natural world. In Hinduism, Tara is one of the forms of Kali, and in Bengal, I went to her shrine at Tarapith, where a stone she appeared in is venerated. The entire country of India is believed to be the body of the Goddess. Every geographic locale has a story of gods and goddesses who live there. Trees are venerated, stones and rivers are sacred—all, all is holy.
In Nepal, in the village of Pharping outside of Kathmandu, I visited a shrine where Tara is reported to be growing miraculously out of a rock. Similar stories of the divine feminine “appearing” were being reported around the globe. From Poland and California, the media related stories of Mary appearing in the bark of trees or out of thin air. In the former Yugoslavia, Mary was appearing to young visionaries at Medjugorje. I realized that if this energy we call Tara in Tibetan Buddhism was going to appear in the West, she would come as Mary, not as a Tibetan female buddha. The divine is so compassionate that it comes in whatever form we need to see it in order for it to help us. I began to see the energies of Tara and Mary as the same phenomenon taking different forms for diverse cultures.
Remember that, though I speak of the “divine feminine,” we are all male and female. Genetically, we carry both within us. We become one gender or another by virtue of one or two X- and Y-chromosomes. Nonetheless, there’s been a deification of the behavior that we have agreed to call “male.” So to say that we have to include the “feminine” is to say that we have to include that part of ourselves which we’ve rejected, excluded, trivialized and considered inferior.
Using the word feminine is also a way of talking about the emotional part of the self, the part of us that knows, consciously or unconsciously, that life is based in spirit. It is almost impossible to have a child and not discover this. Childbirth teaches us, women and men alike, what it takes to keep life alive, the love required, the enormous focus and nurturance that goes into sustaining life. By honoring what we call the feminine, we’re honoring that part of our humanity which is deeply wise about what it takes to nourish life, what it takes to be reconciled with one another, to make peace.
To me the feminine and the wilderness are associated with darkness in its most positive sense, that all-encompassing fecundity that underlies the world, that generative power and force that is always there to support us, feed us, clothe us, shelter us and give us water. The wilderness is an emanation of that positive, life-affirming darkness. Just as we’ve deified the male, we have deified the idea of light and imagine that to achieve spiritually we must go into the light. But we can’t have life in complete sunlight at all times. We need the darkness of the womb for infants to grow; we need the darkness of the Earth for seeds to grow.
In tradition after tradition, one finds stories of the divine feminine that link back to an earlier Earth goddess in the culture of indigenous peoples. The patron of Mexico and all the Americas is Guadalupe, who appeared at the shrine of the Aztec Earth goddess, Tonantzin. In Europe, in mainstream Catholicism, you find the centuries-old tradition of the Dark or Black Madonnas. Many European shrines are built over or out of earlier pre-Christian shrines to different goddesses such as the Egyptian-African Isis, or Cybele, or the Greek Earth mother, Demeter. These female deities have been celebrated in seasonal rituals since time immemorial.
However, in Catholicism, Mary’s association with the Earth has largely been obscured; her appearances in the natural world have even been met with hostility. Take Frassino, Italy, where the Madonna appeared in the branches of a tree and refused to be moved inside the church building (she kept “escaping,” returning to the tree), so Church authorities chopped down the tree. Today, at a side altar inside the church, you can see a little dark Madonna in a piece of the tree that was cut down and now rests inside the tabernacle on the altar.
Tara’s connection to the Earth doesn’t seem to have been obscured in the same way. On the other hand, I don’t know that it has been emphasized. That’s what environmentalists here in America can do; we can take note that Tara comes from the Khadira Forest. Buddhist scholars can research this further in the texts and build on one another’s scholarship. For instance, this is one of the things that interests me about the work of the World Religions and Ecology Forum at Harvard Divinity School. This group has been translating texts on ecological practices from the world’s religions.
To evoke the goddess, I’ve done any number of practices. There’s an image from a thirteenth-century Tibetan thangka with which I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve become deeply and intimately acquainted with this form of Green Tara, and I’ve taken several Tara initiations with various lamas that require visualizing her. (It’s important to study with qualified teachers of these Tibetan Buddhist practices.)
One of the practices is to visualize Tara outside one’s self, then to actually see her enter one’s body, and then to become her, become the deity. This is supremely healing for me as a woman who was taught that being a woman was inferior. At the end of the meditation Tara goes back out into the void. Another practice is to experience all sound as the sound of the deity’s voice and all appearance as the appearance of the deity. It’s been a great delight for me to extend that visualization of Tara, to see everything as a form of her, for the moments that I can. For example, when I go hiking, the path I’m walking on the mountain becomes a tiny blood vessel inside the deity’s body, and I’m walking inside this great body of Tara’s enlightenment, in enlightened wisdom.
There are other practices I’ve developed. For me, the Twelve Steps of recovery are a form of Buddhism indigenous to North America, to this landscape. Drawing on all these traditions, I’ve been working on an increasingly rigorous commitment to telling the truth. This truth-telling is to myself first of all, and it’s ever-deepening. There is no bottom to it. For instance, when I fill up my gas tank now, I’ve started to acknowledge that by being a member of this society with troops in Iraq killing people, I am participating in this war and the horrors of torture that we know are going on. So the price of using this gasoline is high, very, very high, much more than what it says on the pump. Then I dedicate what I’ve taken, asking that I be made more mindful about how I use this precious gasoline, and that whatever I do, I use it to be of benefit to all beings. This is helping me think twice and ask myself whether I could really ride my bike or walk to where I need to go. I often fail at this, I forget, I don’t want to think about these things, but I keep coming back to it. This is practice. I like this direction. Part of how we create our environmental destruction is by not telling the truth about what it’s really costing us.
I’m also struggling each day to write a letter or make a phone call to Congress as part of my spiritual practice. We are in an extraordinary time. We’re not only in a war, we’re in the sixth extinction this planet has known and the only one that’s been caused by humankind. We need all hands on deck! It’s not enough for me to sit quietly in silence and become tranquil in meditation right now. I am committed to living out my values in the world. This is something we all absolutely must do, and I find it supremely challenging.
What gives me hope is the Hindu story of Durga, the warrior goddess queen. It tells us that once before the world was on the brink of destruction. Once before there was war everywhere, rivers had dried up, plants wouldn’t grow, people were starving. The world was being destroyed by demons—symbols of our own hatred, greed and delusion—so powerful that they had defeated every one of the male gods. The gods abandoned the world in their defeat and withdrew to the heights of the Himalayas, where one of the gods finally remembered an ancient prophecy that said that demons would rise up who were so powerful that no one could defeat them but the goddess. Only the feminine could save the world. It’s important to note that the goddess didn’t appear until she was remembered and requested. Called upon by all the defeated male gods, Durga appeared out of a stream of divine fire. Riding her lion, her face blazing like a thousand suns, each of her ten hands holding a weapon of the gods, she defeated the demons.
I talked to the American-born teacher Gangaji about this story of fierce compassion, and she asked me if I knew how Durga defeated the demons. I told her, “She pierced the heart of the king of the demons with her dagger.” And Gangaji said, “That’s it, you see. Piercing the heart is opening the heart.” It was then that I understood the story. It’s by opening the heart that the world is saved, one more time.