By Kellie Schorr
I am a progressive, lesbian Buddhist who lives in the conservative Christian South.
I love my beautiful rural Virginia home and the wonderful friends I’ve made. I don’t want to make it sound bad, because I have daily good experiences here, but beyond the tall trees, lakes and pasture land there’s always a current of “other.”
Getting a haircut, the stylist asked me what my husband did for a living. I told her my partner was a nurse. She didn’t say another word, cut my bangs too short, and accidentally hit me in the forehead with the scissors. At the ER with an infected soon-to-be removed gallbladder the intake nurse held up the form where I had listed Buddhism as my religion.
“What’s your religion?” She asked.
“I’m a Buddhist.”
She literally laughed (out loud).
My sweet friend, Jared, and I stayed at the bookstore until it closed. When we came out our cars were the only two in the parking lot. I had one of those benign blue and yellow Equality stickers on the bumper. While we had been chatting about comics and Star Wars, someone finger-wrote FAG in the dust on my windshield.
Jared gasped. He stood there with tears welling up in his eyes, wiping the slur off my car and murmuring, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, this is so mean…” What was I doing? Lying on the ground under the car making sure no one put nails in my tires or messed with the under-carriage. “That’s not even correct,” I grumbled, more annoyed at the delay than hurt or offended. “It should say ‘dyke’.”
Thick skin? I’ve got it.
Yet my Buddhist teachers are consistent in the message that being an awakened person means having an open heart. Vulnerability, transparency, honoring emotions and caring deeply about myself and all beings is what my practice is all about. I’ve learned to connect with how I feel, not just what I think. I now tell people that I love them instead of just signing off with “Best” or “Til’ Then.” I use the little Facebook heart icon more often than not. As a side effect, I began to experience the spiritual whiplash of opening a heart covered by triple-reinforced steel skin.
Tossed on the waves between compassion and callouses, I searched for a lifeline and found one in the most unlikely of ideas for someone as intellectually pragmatic as I am. I reached out for Green Tara, or maybe, she reached out for me.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Green Tara is a female bodhisattva, a meditation deity. She embodies compassion and action. For modern Western Buddhists who engage with the deities, the bodhisattvas often serve as three-dimensional metaphors for the virtues we wish to connect to in our lives. When reciting their mantras or focusing on them, we are actually reaching deep into ourselves. They are rich in story and flourish with thousands of years of iconography.
The deities are not literal, but they are very real.
Across lineages and time Green Tara, also known as Tara the Liberator, has had several origin stories. The most common, and the one that reaches through my dense exterior to my tender inner heart, is that she was made from a tear drop.
The story says that the bodhisattva Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), the supreme embodiment of compassion, was looking out over all the beings in all the realms, and though he had helped many, all he could see were those who were still suffering. Witnessing the pain of the world he alone was not able to stop made him cry. As the tears poured down, one of them became Tara who declared she would be his companion and help him to stop the suffering of the world.
In some stories Green Tara came from one eye and White Tara (a deity of healing) came from the other. In other histories, there are 21 Taras of all different shades with different purposes. How does a woman made from tears help me?
She has tears when I have tears.
I’d like to think surviving my life experiences and my eternal, often unexplainable, happiness have created a skin so magical that pains and slights just slide off my psyche like a water on a waxed car. They don’t. They eventually penetrate the surface and collect inside until the dam breaks and hot, stinging tears burn my cheeks on their way to the floor.
When I say Tara’s mantra or look at her face in the icon on my wall, I know I may be a mess but I am not alone. Tara reminds me it is real to hurt, and okay to cry. That may seem obvious, but for many of us it is a lesson we truly need to hear (again, and again).
She has tears when I don’t have tears.
I live in a time where people are actually justifying lobbing tear gas at children as a rational or acceptable practice. I hear hate and division spew from the mouths of folks who pray God’s blessings on their fast-food chicken dinner. The oceans are filling with plastic, the fires are burning our woodlands, the freeway is dislocating animals, the racism is boiling over and scalding so many people, children are trafficked, elderly are homeless, the poor are demonized, the rich are apathetic.
It’s too much. It’s all too much. So I add another few layers of skin and tell myself, “I can’t cry over this anymore. I’ll drown.”
When I divert my eyes to preserve my own sanity, Tara still sees. Tara still cries—for me and for the overwhelming reality I am not strong enough to shoulder all the time. Her presence in my practice reminds me that there is always a part of me that never really stops caring, even when the surface waters run dry.
She puts tears into motion
She may be made of tears, but Tara doesn’t sit around in a glass. In iconography she is always shown with her right foot extended forward. She’s ready to act. She’s ready to move. She’s not Tara the Sobbing Sister, she’s Tara the Liberator. Compassion isn’t just feeling or caring, it’s the fuel that runs the engine that makes the changes our world needs. Connecting with her may start with a good cry, but it always leads to action. A letter, a donation, a lesson, a vote—all begin from the compassionate core she inspires within.
It’s a rough world out there filled with harsh realities and astounding beauty. We fight and fume over the “other” but we are all interconnected. How do I walk through this world of shadow and light with my head up and heart open? One step, one Tara mantra, one moment at a time.
Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Dana Gornall
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