Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Garden Altars

A candle illuminates a Khmer Buddha in a niche in my garden
Ganesha peers from a moss encrusted niche in my garden

Winter in the Pacific Northwest tends to be wet.  It rains a lot, so I leave my lovely home for sunnier climes in the winter.  While I am gone the moss grows, and when I come home, parts of my garden are covered in luxuriant green fur.  Mosses absorb moisture and nutrients through their tiny leaves rather than through roots, and are able to colonize bare stone, which in turn provides a base on which other opportunistic plants can grow.  Mosses have inhabited the Earth for millions of years and speak of their ability to adapt and thrive where nothing grew before.  And they garland my altars in the most beautiful way.  It is an odd statement about our relationship with nature that people always want to powerwash it away.  I love it.

Detail of a wall in my garden
My garden is filled with altars, places were I can place objects of meaning to me.  Most of the objects were collected during my travels here and around the world.  They remind me of the places they came from and the experiences I had there.
There are marbles I've dug up in gardens that remind me of my childhood.  There are treasures that belonged to my ancestors to remind me of my heritage.  There are statues of deities and Buddhas to remind me of the divine realm and meditation.  There are stones I've pocketed from glorious days by rivers and beaches.  There are things I simply find beautiful because I like to surround myself with beauty.   And there is water, which makes life possible.

A copy of the Sarnath Buddha with a prayer rug mosaic in front of my home

I'm always preaching the need to lie down in the garden to fully appreciate it.  On warm dry days I roll out carpets on my loose pebble patio with a few pillows and recline in the midst of all the loveliness of my garden.  As the layers of preoccupation peel away to the siren song of trickling fountains, I start to notice the small details close at hand in the walls I've built around me.  Over time they have become harbingers of nature.

Lie down and relax
My walls are built of stones I have collected along the way, each one catching my eye due to some extraordinary character.  By the fate of encounter they are plucked from their path and carted off to my garden, where I try to be worthy of their abduction by using them in some kind of divine arrangement.  Mixed amongst these geologic wonders are carved sandstone relics I bought and shipped back from India many years ago.  Indian architecture at its best relates to divine rules of composition that are exemplified with the allusion of beauty.  Niches are an important component as they are a place for offerings to reside.  By demonstrating reverence on a repeated basis, I believe that a place can be collectively made sacred over time with the showering of intension and blessings of love.
As I lay there, gazing at the wall, where a small golden sandstone niche from the fabled Thar Desert town of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan is imbedded, I see how the moss has found the shaded porosity of the sandstone to be a fine place to prosper.  The stones in the wall are mostly from rivers and beaches, and the ones set on the cap of the wall have small valleys between them where water flows when it rains, making the channels down which the water trickles moist.  The moisture makes it possible for the ancient life form of moss to subsist.  A shell from some S.E. Asian beach I combed 25 years ago sits in a small niche, its spiraling form speaking to the same forces that shape galaxies.  A certain kind of shaggy moss has taken to this niche and a species of spider has made the shell and the space behind it a home for many generations.
A moss draped sandstone niche holds a shell behind which a species of spider has lived for many years
A tile mosaic spiderweb I made for a client we called 'The Weaver'
The Navajos have a story of the Spider Woman, who had been told by holy beings that she had the ability to weave a map of the universe and the geometrical patterns of spirit beings in the night sky.  One day while gathering food, she touched the branch of a small tree, and a string emerged, connected to the palm of her hand.  As she moved the string from branch to branch, she realized that she was weaving the patterns she had been told about.  On returning home, she showed her partner the skills she had learned and he built a loom for her on which to do her weavings.  People heard of this and came to see and learn these skills, from which the tradition of Navajo weaving began.  Men to this day build the looms, and women do the weaving.  Young women learning to weave are told to go out in the  early morning and find a spiders web bejeweled with morning dew.  They are told to place their right hand on the web without damaging it, and they will be gifted the skill to weave within their spirit forever.  We tend to have a neurotic fear of spiders, but they are divine teachers and we should never kill them.  My garden is full of them at various times of year, and I have never been harmed by one.

I was out in the garden just before the ancient holy day of Beltaine, lost somewhere between melancholy and bliss.  The warm light of a late April day made the luxuriant new foliage glow.  The bright white leaves of the Arctic Beauty Kiwi frames the fragrant bowers of a hundred year old lilac.  When the kiwi blooms it will eclipse the lilac with a spice drenched aroma that makes me stop and sit in the evening to inhale its divinity.
Actinidia kolomikta draped over Mahonia 'Charity'

Sort of buried underneath the tangle of vines and lilac is a good size Mahonia 'Charity' shrub laden with clusters of flocked blue berries.  A fat blue jay splashes in the stone lotus bowl I designed and had carved in Mahabalipuram in India.  Beside that is a beautiful Khmer style Hindu God Lord Vishnu, the preserver.  In my house I have a temple rubbing of a bas relief from Angkor in Cambodia depicting the great creation story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.  The Nectar of Immortality, amongst other things, has been lost in the sea.  Vishnu conducts a tug of war between the dual forces of Nature, depicted as Devas and Asuras, dark and light, good and evil.  They pull back and forth on a seven headed cobra called a Naga, which is wrapped around the holy Mount Mandara, at the center of the universe in the Sea of Milk.  The mountain acts as a churn, stirring up the energy within the sea.  It churns for a thousand years, and as it begins to bore downward, an early incarnation of Vishnu arises to support it.   The action creates a foam of heavenly angels called Apsaras, and the Amrit, the sustainer of immortality in the Gods is released.  The entire process is a metaphor for creation of the dynamic whirl of the cosmos on every level.  Duality is a component of all things and the balancing of that duality is what makes everything work.  Altars can capture the essence of these concepts through symbolism and structure, and bless us with by making us aware of this great dynamic.
A charcoal rubbing of a bas relief of the Churning of the Sea of Milk from Angkor, hanging in my living room

A Bronze Khmer Vishnu statue in my garden
Frequently in my lectures I discuss the concept of triggering consciousness.   After the blue jay finished his vigorous bath and flew off, I removed my soiled gloves and reverently moved the statue of Vishnu out in to the sunlight to rest on a circle of stone mosaic where I grow salad greens.  He could now shower blessings down upon my kale and mesclune.

As I said before there was some melancholy in my psyche on this beautiful day.  I couldn't seem to shake it.  It seemed to be the result of some sadness brought on by the state of the world.  My mind had wandered in to the realm of Vishnu, and it made me think of an animated video I had seen which started with the smallest sources of energy that manifest particles, which in turn make up protons and neutrons, a form of duality in negative and positive energy, around which electrons spin.  As the scale of things increases by mathematical increments, there are elements, and molecules, and all the things that can become of that, eventually reaching the realm in which we perceive our reality, including ourselves.  Going outward, there is the garden, and the landscape, and the planet, and the solar system, and the Milky Way, and the Universe, and the expanding cosmos itself racing to its limits, where it may some day implode and begin again.  It seems we are in the middle of this incredible event, with everything smaller and greater than us pulling back and forth to churn the Sea of Milk, frothing it all up and making it go.  In the ultimate state of enlightenment I would imagine that one feels the connection to this churning magnificent process.

For Hindus in India and Nepal, stones are often regarded as sacred manifestations and are embellished to give them personality and to invoke divine spirit.  They are sometimes pigmented and dressed, and sometimes have eyes attached to them.  The one in this photo at left represents the almighty God Shiva, the Lord of the dance that created and eventually destroys and recreates the cosmos.  Sometimes the stone is left in its original condition as if its very existence is enough to invoke the intended state of consciousness it is meant to inspire.

In Nepal, they carve Tibetan Buddhist mantras such as one spelled phonetically as 'om manipadme hum', loosely translated to mean 'behold the jewel in the lotus', referring to the Bodhisattva of loving compassion.  In Nepal, I found miles of altar walls covered in stones carved with this mantra placed as offerings during auspicious festivals.  It is quite magical to walk along them knowing and absorbing what they mean.


Mani stones in the Langtang Valley of Nepal
An elaborate golden altarpiece in the Cathedral of Tarragona, Spai
Every religion seems to include altars within their architecture.  They are often at the heart of a temple or church, where sacred ritualistic objects are placed, as well as seasonal offerings such as flowers.  In a sense the sacredness of the objects within the altar space would be a lure to attract divine energy.

Altars are a place to invoke reverence.  In Chinese homes there is always an altar to honor one's ancestors.   There may be old portraits over a decorated red and gold shelf, and a statue of the Buddha.  A glass of water and some fresh fruit is often placed on the shelf to provide sustenance to the departed, along with a burning stick of incense to scent the air in ghostly swirls of smoke.  Lighting incense is a way to show conscious reverence through a simple ritual.  The altar is always kept above head height out of respect.  By keeping departed spirits content one helps assure peace and hopefully prosperity.  I frequently see statues of Buddhas in American gardens sitting on the ground, which could be taken as offensive by reverent Buddhists.  Take note.
The Grotto at the Sanctuary for our Sorrowful Mother in Portland, Oregon
Grottos are a geographical feature that have often become places of reverence around the world.  On Mount Parnassus in Greece, the Muses of poetry, art, and music were believed to have inhabited the cave from which a spring emerged, and many divine gatherings were held there.  The idea of a holy spring emerging from a grotto was stylized as Nyphaeums by the Romans, a ritual spring where divine maidens resided inspiring creativity and beauty.  For the Catholic church, these became a place of refuge for the Virgin and miracles have been attributed to visions of the Virgin Mary at the mouth of caves and springs such as Lourdes in France.


A Thai Buddha high up on the wall in my garden
Occasionally I am commissioned to build an altar in a client's garden.  Usually it is meant to be a focal point, some times including a fountain for providing the sound and sparkle of water and honoring that element which makes it possible for us to exist.  In a recent ritual I attended a woman spoke of about the property water molecules have of changing shape in response to thought and emotion, suggesting that since we are made mostly of water, that we are in fact directly affecting our very being in the immediate moment by our feelings and actions, and can therefore manifest who we are by being consciously aware of the fact and giving the molecules a beautiful harmonious form by being in a state of peace.

The idea was developed by the Japanese doctor Masaru Emoto after he conducted studies photographing water molecules after addressing them with various words, both positive and negative.  The results are startling.


From experience the most powerful work I have done is when I have had the opportunity to work in time and space, along the lines of Vastu Puranic architecture, which is a method applied to the construction of Hindu temples, but also applies to many other religious practices of constructing sacred structures.  The project is organized and commenced by determining times that are auspicious and working around them.  There isn't a rush based on deadlines, but rather the construction is performed around the cycles of nature and the cosmos, so that a relationship is developed connecting them to the work being performed.  Building something on an equinox or solstice connects it to the cycle of the Earth's circuit around the Sun, and links it to all other sacred spaces that connect to the same principals.  The body of a serpent forms on the terraces of a Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico on Spring equinox, the same day that light is cast on key sections of the bas reliefs at Ankor Wat in Cambodia.  Light penetrates the interior of Hindu temples in India in the same way they align with a mosaic I built on the Olympic Peninsula on the Summer solstice.  By creating those relationships you can connect your creation to a network of sacred sites through mutual intention, and the awareness of that connection can alter your consciousness in subtle or profound ways.
The Council Ring at Windcliff has a mosaic of a Giant Pacific Octopus, native to Puget Sound who's arms point to the cardinal directions.  There are alignments with the sun on Summer Solstice at sunrise, high noon, and sunset.  The colors in the stones correspond with the colors of the seasons of the year.
Marigold garlands in the Howrah flower market in Calcutta
An altar can simply be a platform on which special objects can be placed.  It can be a nice driftwood plank carried off the beach, or a flat slab of stone purchased at a stone yard.  Sometimes a client will buy a beautiful statue of an Asian deity to give the altar a focus.  I have made marigold garlands to drape around the neck of a Buddha statue in my garden on special occasion as a display of reverence.  This is a practice common in India, where flower markets can be piled with tons of golden strands of these fragrant flowers.

The ceremony gives a history of positive attention to the altar.  The more you use it and focus attention on it the more sacred it becomes.  I've noticed that animals are often attracted to the energy of altars, as if there is some kind of alluring draw that they are capable of perceiving.  While I was building a memorial altar in Southern Oregon, it was visited by a rattlesnake, a huge colorful lizard, and a cougar.  During its dedication a flock of birds circled directly overhead, as if blessing the event.

Tiny ceramic bottles built in to an Memorial altar for men who died of AIDS at a sanctuary in Southern Oregon.  I meditated and began work on this altar daily as the sun rose over the mountain and completed the days work with a meditation at sunset, taking a siesta during the heat of the afternoon.
The first altar I built for a client was for a wedding.  I had traveled to Barcelona, Spain that Spring and returned with a head filled with images of the work of Antonio Gaudi.  My client had never seen his work previously but was profoundly moved by images that I showed her and asked me if I couldn't build her a 'Gaudiesque' garden for her wedding ceremony.  So I built a large tiered altar that wraps around a small round mosaic patio tucked in to the steep slope at  the back of the garden. There are two towers inspired by those at the Cathedral of La Sagrada Familia framing a large round medallion encrusted in broken mirror.  It was quite an extraordinary achievement for me as a young stone mason.  Today, like the marriage, it lies in ruins, but it retains an atmospheric quality to it even in its degraded state.
An old photograph of Faviana's wedding altar
One woman I've worked for over the years found a lovely bronze Quan Yin statue at a local import shop that became the centerpiece for an altar platform.  It rests above a fountain embedded with a antique carved stone niche from India similar to those found in my garden.  I veneered an ugly concrete block wall with stone that matches a patio I built for her several years prior, with some lovely hand gathered river rocks from my collection that form an inverted pyramid.  My client wanted to honor the feminine energy she summons as a single mother and pediatrician.  Quan yin is a female Bodhisattva, a being with ultimate compassion for all sentient beings.  She is sometimes referred to as the Goddess of Mercy.  Her presence in the garden is one of peaceful contemplation and compassion, something we can always use in our lives.  I elevated the platform on which she sits above that of the rest of the wall to honor her divine strength and beauty.
An altar to Quan Yin creates a focal point over a fountain as part of a wall remodel for a client
In my last essay, called My Work, I built an altar for a statue of the Elephant headed Hindu deity Ganesha, who in the pantheon is referred to as the 'remover of obstacles'.  He is the one you pray to first, who by removing obstructions from your path, enables you to proceed unimpeded.  I used a stone arch way that I brought back from Rajasthan in India several years ago and made a sunburst of slender pieces of slate that I found in local streams to form a sunburst.  This was erected on June 22nd, the first day of summer after the Solstice, on the longest day of the year.  It faces south, and supports a platform on which the Ganesha statue will eventually rest.  A fountain will spill water in a thin stream in to a bowl where flowers can be floated on special occasions.  There is a stone niche in the center of the slate sunburst for additional offerings.  I created a number of niches in the seat height walls where candles and objects can be placed, giving the long curving walls the ability to become a series of altars in themselves.  I was very dismayed to learn that after I left, the patio and walls had been sealed with several coats of a glossy sealer.  While this brings out the color of the stone and makes it always look wet, which appealed to my clients, it also gives the stone a plastic quality that is unnatural.  The stone will never change color now when it rains.  The stone cannot breath, and the life force of ancient mosses and lichens will not add their patina to the veins between the stones.  The plastic sealer has a toxicity that violates the natural relationship I had hoped the patio and altar would have with the surrounding environment.  A big sigh.
A fountain altar centers a curving seat height wall indented with several niches in a garden in Sonoma County, California.  This photo was taken before the patio was cleaned and sealed.  I was not consulted before several coats of gloss sealer were applied to the stone work.
Another fountain altar that I built last year is something that I cast in a form that I built from scrap wood and flexible lawn edging.  I filled the mold with mortar and did a pebble mosaic, with a central niche in which made of cut sandstone for placing special objects.  The fountain has a flexible copper tubing cast in to it that runs from a small recirculating pump up to where the water arcs down in to a ceramic bowl.  I left the niche bare for my client to embellish with objects that have meaning to her.  It is once again the centerpiece of the garden, the spring of life.  The sound of the water splashing in to the bowl completely transforms the ambience of the garden in to a magical oasis.
Fountain with a small altar niche
I attend a few grand festivals every summer where altar building has become a tradition.  The sweetest of them all is called "Beloved Sacred Arts and Music Festival".  A number of artisans build temporary altars using objects they have brought that are mixed with natural materials gathered from the surrounding forests.  Forest mosses are frequently used to make soft frames and cushions on which to place things to create sacred patterns and symbols.
An array of objects waiting to be assembled by an artist in to an altar at the Beloved Festival
Artists assembling an altar from natural materials around a tree stump at the Beloved Festival
The altars are sited at places where energy is focused and thoughtfully honored.  We wonder as a society why there are so many ills.  A simple case could be made for the fact that we have violated or obliterated so many powerful energy sources in our haste to develop them for some kind of economic or convenient benefit.  There are parking lots where at one time there might have been an artesian spring or ancient grove of magical trees or a rock outcropping.  By building altars to mark places of consequential import and honoring them we can inspire blessings that might otherwise be lost to us.  This may all sound rather woo woo but I know from personal experience that what I am suggesting is important and real.
A playful collection of carefully arranged objects creates a temporary altar at the Beloved Festival
Some altars are like mandalas viewed from above, or stand on platforms and shelves in the more traditional sense.
A Medallion of cut branches set in moss at the Beloved Festival

The altar by the Temple of Light and Sound stage at Beloved
Some are more like a collection of decorative elements that can border on kitsch that is tempered by the sweetness of their intention and thoughtful arrangement.
A blue altar by Trinity Domino at Beloved


Rolling a mobile altar to the temple for the White Procession
The largest and craziest festival that I attend annually is Burning Man.  In recent years more than 50,000 people converge on a dry alkaline lake bed in the Nevada desert to create a city where just about anything goes.  It is a place where people can recreate themselves with abandon.  At the apex of a giant circular plan of streets is an open wedge of space in which sits a Temple of Memory.  A number of groups guided by artist/architects have designed and overseen the construction of magnificent wooden structures that become laden with memorabilia and sentiment by the week's end, usually in regards to loved ones who have passed on.  Numerous wedding ceremonies take place here as the site is truly used as a temple, one that is burned on Sunday night, sending a massive outpouring of love and remembrance in to the transition of flames to ashes.
A magical pavilion built from found objects in 2008 by an artist named Shrine
This year's temple, designed by veteran temple builder David Best, was perhaps the loveliest yet conceived.  Every year something beautiful and magical is constructed, some humble, others grandiose, but this one was taken to an intricate pinnacle with cosmic proportions that were so carefully refined as to be exceptional on every level.  The structure had elements of a South Indian, Balinese, and Burmese and Thai temples.  It was named the Temple of Juno in honor of the Roman goddess who is attributed to fertility, which was the theme of this year's festival.
The spire of the Temple of Juno seems to touch the rising moon at Burning Man
The wood was plasma cut in to lacy screens with the cut out portions assembled in to ornaments that gave the building a rich level of decoration.  Hanging from the steep sided central tower was a similar shaped inverted pyramidal pendant which centered on another sharply pointed pinnacle that rose from a low, stepped square platform on which objects could be placed.
Looking up inside the Temple of Juno
As objects accumulated, the platforms became wonderful altars of remembrance and spiritual focus.  Large numbers of people would gather in contemplative meditation while musicians gently played beautiful music, all basking in the divine light filtering in through the perforated screens that made up the ceilings of the structure.  It was a truly marvelous and moving space to inhabit.
The Temple of Juno on Thursday morning
The Temple altar on Saturday afternoon
As the week went on, the altar accumulated more and more objects of reflection and remembrance, so that over time it became a great collective shrine of mutual intention expressed by individuals and groups, basically creating a society bonded by symbiotic love and loss.
A detail of objects assembled on the alter in the Temple of Juno at Burning Man
On Sunday night, as is the tradition, the temple was burned.  It is a remarkable gift to be able to experience something so profoundly magical that is here for such a short time and then burns to ashes so quickly.  I can honestly say that this was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life as a traveler.
Burning the Temple of Juno at the Burning Man Festival

Build yourself an altar!

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
My altar to travel by the front door to my house