Tiirtha, is a Sanskrit word meaning a sacred place that is visited on a pilgrimage wherever we live. Our cultural memories lie within the physicality of place that has historical and metaphysical connotations. From ancient time forward, people have journeyed to sacred places, leaving behind some personal object and taking home something to connect them to the place. This exhibition is part of my Marking Sacred series, which gives expression to my journeys through many cultures over the years.
While hiking to a monastery in Bhutan, I found an offering of burgundy threads on a branch at the confluence of the pathways. Prayer flags, tattered and twisted by the fierce winds on a Himalayan pass, sent prayers continually into the sky. The priest wrapped a red thread around my wrist on a visit to his temple.
In Bolivia I carried a stone from the valley to the mountain pass, placing it with others to mark safe passage. And on the return trip, I found a feather to carry home as a memory. Stacked stones, cairns, inukshuks and stupas all mark sacred earth points, sought after and acknowledged by travelers.
In Southern India turmeric roots are entwined in marigold colored threads, then wrapped around sacred stone statues and trees. Handprints of sacred ash are placed on the walls of temples. Certain stones in fields are covered in red kumkum powder and coconut oil for protection.
In Japan, people leave folded papers, stones or wood panels inscribed with hopes and fortunes. A beautifully prepared bundle of rice or food offers thanks. A Buddhist pilgrim may transfer his present or past sins to a stone, wrap it with wool yarn, and leave it hanging on the branch of a sacred pine tree, hoping for absolution.
Walking by the remains of the World Trade Center, I felt the heartbreak in notes, ribbons and pictures tied to chain link fences. Recently walking in my Seattle neighborhood, I saw trees wrapped with multitudes of pink ribbons, solidarity in spirit and support for breast cancer research. And when recently visiting the Empowering Women exhibition at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art, my daughter, granddaughters and I left with pink, plastic wrist bands.
We live in a world where it may be difficult to feel a part of the whole, but we continue trying to find ways to connect to place and to each other. By leaving offerings of our own, we connect not only with those who have come before us, but also to those travelers yet to come.
Jizo originated in India and is a Bodhisattva or Bosatsu, meaning one who achieves enlightenment but postpones Buddha hood until all of us can be saved. Jizo literally means “womb of the earth” and “earth treasury”. A Jizo is in the form of a monk, dressed in a simple robe. He or she may have a staff to shake, awakening us from our delusions and helping us achieve enlightenment. A precious jewel is held in the other hand and signifies the bestowal of blessings on all who suffer. The jewel grants wishes, pacifies desires and brings clear understanding of the Dharma (Buddhist law).
Jizo are the most beloved of all Japanese divinities and have taken on many roles of protection since appearing in 710 AD. They act as guardians of the unborn, patron saints of mothers, children, travelers, pilgrims and firemen, and are protectors of all beings caught in the six realms of reincarnation. There follows a Japanese folktale about Jizo:
Once upon a time, there lived a poor elderly man and woman in a small northern village of Japan. One New Year’s Eve, the woman asked the man go to town and sell her carefully hand-woven cloth, allowing them to buy things required for the New Years celebration. He tried and tried to sell the cloth with no luck, and became very cold and tired. Finally another man, unable to sell his hats made of grass, suggested they exchange their goods, which they agreed to do.
On the old man’s return home, it started to snow heavily. Outside of his village, he passed six Jizo, stone guardian deities, who looked very cold in the snow. He put the hats on five of the Jizo and being short of one hat, tied his old cloth towel on the shortest Jizo. He bowed and wished them a very Happy New Year.
When the man returned to his cottage, the old woman gave him some much needed hot tea and listened patiently to his story. Rather than be angry with him, she praised his kind act of charity.
They retired to their bed early, after a very sparse supper of pickles. At midnight, they awoke to singing and loud noises outside their cottage. The old man and woman were very scared, but finally the sounds went away. When they went outside, they found presents and money for their New Year ceremony, which had been given in thanks by the Jizo spirits for the old man’s kindness.
When in Japan last Fall, I became entranced by the Jizo. I began searching for them on paths, at waysides and even under bushes behind the temples. I photographed over 150 of their faces. Eleven of the eighteen Jizo paintings being shipped to Sun Valley for the July show burned in transit in a truck fire. The drivers opened the burning trailer and threw out much of the work before the firemen stopped them. The loss of the Jizo paintings was a good sacrifice, for no one was hurt and of this, I am surely thankful.