In fairy stories a forest is the site of transformation. Unexpected encounters with shadow and benign figures take the protagonist from one state of being to a state of wholeness so a marriage can take place – ultimately giving birth to a golden child. The story of The Handless Maiden is one such story. It is a tale of endurance over a lifetime through repetitions of loss, sacrifice and renewal. Her father is tricked into selling her to the devil for riches and plenty. When the devil comes to take her, her purity of heart throws him across the yard. The devil threatens her father with ruin and tells him to cut off her hands and to not let her bathe. But the girl and the father both cried so many tears that the stumps of her arms were clean and again when the devil tried to seize her, he was thrown across the yard.
This time he leaves for good, his rage setting off fires in the forest. The girl bids her father and mother goodbye and with bandaged stumps goes off to live the life of a wandering beggar. Spiritual forces assist her to find food when she is hungry. A pear tree from the king’s orchard bends to offer its ripe fruit into her mouth. When the king sees this he falls in love with her. He fashions two silver hands for her and they marry. The king is away when she gives birth to their child. The devil however is furious when he hears the news and intercepts the message from the king about the good news. Instead he writes to the queen’s mother that the woman and child are to be killed and their tongues are to be sent as evidence that this was done or he would ruin the kingdom. The Queen Mother cannot bear to do this and sacrificed a young doe instead. Again the handless maiden gathered up her child and fled to a forest where she lived incognito for many years. Slowly her hands grew back. The King was distraught when he found the devil had tricked his mother and began to search for his wife over many long years. Finally, they were reunited and all is well in the end.
This was my journey in some ways, beset by sexual attacks in early adulthood from people close to me, then drugged and raped by strangers. One that stood out in particular is an encounter with the Chaplain at St Vincent’s Hospital when I was seventeen. Fumbling shaky hands, my discomfort around him, his kisses, the confusion I felt with an authority figure we were expected to “confess to”. It was not the worst physical assault I experienced as a young woman, but it was the most deceptive and confounding. Religious confusion, shame, addiction, suicidal car accidents, a phobia around authoritarian men, a pattern of encounters with women with abuse stories, and travels that took me to extreme places in search of wholeness and healing.
In the forest behind the studio is an old hollow gum tree, one of the few that survived the heavy logging in the 1920’s. The Dja Dja Wurrung people visited and said it was a women’s birthing tree. Even though distressed and angry by the genocide of their people, one of the aunties picked up a handful of earth and poured half of it into my hand in a gesture of good will.
On an occasion during a workshop for women who had experienced incest or sexual abuse, one woman became overwhelmed with rage and began yelling at the group. In an effort to calm her, we went to the tree and she got inside it. Later she realised that the tree, although hollow and burnt up the interior of the trunk, was still alive, massive and full of interesting bumps the size of baby’s heads. Red sap oozed from the bark, and there was a strip of clear white bark as though a canoe had been cut out of it. The tree became a site of reconciliation for intolerable loss; the hollow interior that held the woman giving birth can also make the unendurable bearable. A little while later, at a community spring celebration, a neighbour who worked at the local hardware store was overcome by an experience of a large white snake travelling from the top end of Australia to this place in Daylesford. What was so convincing was that he was an ordinary Australian bloke, not into anything “oogy boogy”.
In the early days of spiritual direction with Anneliese I dream that I am flying over the Gulf of Carpentaria and see a signpost marked as Highway Number 1 and township of Amraynald, a remote and desolate place at the top of Australia still in the spirit of Indigenous Australians. I am amazed to find this place on a map.
The number 1 and the letter A, in the beginning, the kingly way. A previous experience of A occurred in 1983 on meeting Lama Thubten Yeshe. In the years following his death he appeared in dreams with instructions to go to Aix la Chapelle, an ancient cathedral in Aachen, Germany. He also said, “Study Vipassana meditation.” Anneliese is German as was Ayya Khema, a great teacher of Theravadan Buddhist practice.
The memory of these dream messages from Lama Yeshe lived within me until one day at work, a girl who worked as the secretary put me onto the ten day Vipassana retreats with Goenka in Blackheath. These are physically arduous as we sit unmoving hour after hour from 4.30 am until 9.30 at night. In the safety of silence and stillness, and the profound scope of eastern philosophy, I faced that intense feelings of anger and fear had brought me to a frightening edge of the deep depression. At the first retreat I managed to separate thinking from the physical pain from injuries incurred in drink and drug affected car accidents. Aversion to the pain had kept it locked in. Through detachment it dissolved completely and although the pattern of pain returned I was convinced by the experience that I could live without recourse to medication, and often in the retreats feelings of depression and anxiety would lift for a time. The vows to harm no living creature protected us as we practised the various techniques of shamatha (calm abiding), vipassana (insight) and metta (loving kindness). The days were structured from 4.30 am until 9 pm into periods of sitting cross legged on a cushion for an hour then short periods of walking meditation. Meals were eaten in silence and the dharma talk in the evening would inspire us to persist.
These retreats are in the forest monastery tradition of Theravadan Buddhism of Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. Since the first retreats in Blackheath and Igatpuri India, I have heard many inspired Buddhist teachers of many lineages whenever the opportunity arises to go to teachings, and sit regularly.
Wake up the Bodhi mind by examining your ethics. Buddha divided them into cousala and acousala.
Cousala is helpful action that brings wholesome outcome. Acousala is unhelpful action that causes harm. We must choose to abstain from harmful acts
Through the five precepts, non-killing, non-stealing, not lying, nor sexual misconduct and intoxication, And adopt habits of being careful in speech and truthful. Respectful of life, compassion sensitive to sharing generosity.
Care with sensuality with others and avoid things that confuse the mind.
In 1994 I made a pilgrimage to Aix la Chapelle, in Aachen, Germany. It was the first time I had been in a Catholic church in many years as I would be bereft, often sobbing uncontrollably because of my sexual orientation and the church and family’s condemnation. The position in Buddhism sees desire and aversion as the causes of suffering. Abandoning clinging to identity is a step that is taken gradually through developing insight rather than absolute condemnation that I experienced as a member of the gay community. Rather, sexuality as raw creative energy is incorporated in Tibetan Buddhism as part of the tantric deity practices.
In the cathedral I wondered, “Why here?” I looked at the structure of the geometric patterns in the floor tiles, the intense colours of the soaring stain glass windows, reconstructed after world war two in contemporary design. On the ceiling was a mighty icon of Christ Pantocrator, surrounded by angels. Incense burned as services were held throughout the day. After three days of sitting in the candle light, the face of Christ emerged. Then I heard a beautiful voice saying many things. What I recalled was the words “Help women”. This was a return to the religion of my childhood and I wondered why such a message would come in the form of a Tibetan Lama. Relics of the Virgin Mary were held in a golden casket, the sword of Charlemagne and the king’s throne carved from rock. Afterwards I wandered from city to city down the Rhine to Bavaria to speak to Ayya Khema, the founder of Wat Buddha Dharma in NSW, who was conducting a retreat at a Benedictine Monastery. She wrote a book called When the Iron Eagle Flies, in which she compared the jnanas (meditative absorptions) and St Theresa D’Avila’s mystical book, The Interior Mansion. The main difference between the two, she concluded, was the mindfulness of sensations, the vipassana aspect resulting in nirvana.