|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
|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
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'
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
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
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
|A Thai Buddha high up on the wall in my garden
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.
|Marigold garlands in the Howrah flower market in Calcutta
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.
|An old photograph of Faviana's wedding altar
|An altar to Quan Yin creates a focal point over a fountain as part of a wall remodel for a client
|Fountain with a small altar niche
|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
|A playful collection of carefully arranged objects creates a temporary altar at the Beloved Festival
|A Medallion of cut branches set in moss at the Beloved Festival
|The altar by the Temple of Light and Sound stage at Beloved
|A blue altar by Trinity Domino at Beloved
|Rolling a mobile altar to the temple for the White Procession
|A magical pavilion built from found objects in 2008 by an artist named Shrine
|The spire of the Temple of Juno seems to touch the rising moon at Burning Man
|Looking up inside the Temple of Juno
|The Temple of Juno on Thursday morning
|The Temple altar on Saturday afternoon
|A detail of objects assembled on the alter in the Temple of Juno at Burning Man
|Burning the Temple of Juno at the Burning Man Festival
Build yourself an altar!
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
|I built this tiered base several years ago for a client's beautiful Shiva Tandava, doing the dance that created the Universe.
|My altar to travel by the front door to my house