The Role of Statues and Depictions of the Divine

On his Facebook page, Taoist Master, Deng Ming-Dao writes:

“If Taoists believe that we should look beyond gods, why then are the temples filled with them? If the master says that all answers are inside of us, why does the master help us find a personal deity to whom we direct our chants and our prayers? If all is illusory—including our little human world and the grandiose vision of heaven we have crafted for ourselves—why do Taoists work to restore temples and convey the scriptures?

They do this because we need these aids when we’re still young on the path. We need the gods to focus our imaginations. We need devotion to discipline ourselves, and to give expression to our piety. We need the words of the past sages to help us pacify our intellects.

Later, you can be one of those Taoist beggars in rags, wandering the road without caring about a single religious object or conception. You won’t need gods, you won’t need temples, you won’t need scriptures.

And yet, you’ll be grinning.”

I have been pondering what this means for me and my practice, and how I interpret the role of statues and images of the Divine, especially when they are consecrated.

When priests consecrate a statue or image of the Divine, regardless of whether it is Jesus, Buddha, Guanyin, or any other holy depiction that we feel drawn to, they direct the divine energy into the object.  The object, which now contains concentrated divine energy, becomes sort of like an embodied, perpetual prayer which appeals with us and also on our behalf to the Divine to help develop those qualities in us which we so admire and attribute to it.  In our devotion it aids us in purifying ourselves to make ourselves receptive for the treasures of the same divine qualities which we are gradually excavating in ourselves through our spiritual practice.

Harmonizing with the Tao

To be perfectly harmonized with
the Tao is like perfectly centered
clay on the potter’s wheel.


It can not be verbalized, but
you feel it when you
have achieved it.


Just like clay, we can
get off balance, but we can
always center ourselves again.


Clay can get fatigued. So
can we. Centering in a fatigued
state is impossible.


Strong, even clay without
air bubbles is the easiest
to center.


It takes courage and lots of
practice, and to accept
failures until we succeed.

Meditation While Raking Leaves

Yesterday, a landscaper rang our door bell.  He offered to rake our yard for $ 65.00 front and back.  I can’t thank this stranger enough!  He must have been heaven-sent.  No, it is not what you may think; I did not hire him.  But he reminded me that I had become lazy and dependent.  All I wanted to do is pursue the things I love; art, photography, and writing.  That’s why the leaves in our yard were still on the ground since the beginning of fall, and our lot had become quite unsightly.

Though, I dislike raking leaves, I finally ordered myself to grab the rake and go to work.  The repetitive motion put me into a meditative mood.  I had to think of my master’s urging to always be self-sufficient.  How I had failed him in this point!  I remembered my master’s story of the invisible, selfless servants in China sweeping the stairs of the temple that hundreds of visitors cross every day without ever taking any note of them or their work.  Now, I had the opportunity to be that humble servant myself and contribute my work so that someone else won’t have to do it, only that I was raking the lawn instead of sweeping the stairs.

Raking Leaves 009_2_1After a while, a neighbor walked by and stopped.  We chatted a little and talked about how we all have a love-hate relationship with our trees.  In summer we love them for the shade they afford us, and in winter we hate them for shedding their leaves on our lawns.  It was nice to be out and connect with this neighbor that I’d never met before.

The sun was shining and the air fresh.  I had to rejoice in the fact that I am a healthy and capable person.  I can walk and rake and do just about anything I want to do.  How much my shoulder tendinitis from a year and a half ago has improved thanks to Anthroposophic treatments from my physician friend!  I have so much to be grateful for!

In the midst of the leaf pile, I discovered two pretty leaves.  (I am sure there were more, but these two jumped out at me.)  Admittedly, I had never seen a black leaf before, probably because of lack of mindfulness and because I always left the raking to someone else.

Raking Leaves 004_2_1Suddenly, the dry leaves under my feet called back to my memory this poem my son had to learn by heart for school many years ago.  He had a rough time with it and was too young to appreciate poetry.  How did this poem go again?  Well, I looked it up, and here it is:

Kicking up Leaves

What started out as the thought of a dreaded chore, turned into a multifaceted, enjoyable lesson and beautiful afternoon.

The Darkest Time of the Year

The sunny days are over. It is cold and rainy. The weather is not conducive for photography today. But this afternoon holds a special treat for us: the annual, international creche exhibit at the local monastery. There will be dozens of nativity scenes from all around the world on display in a festive candlelight setting.

This reminds me of the approaching holidays and, particularly of the darkest time of the year. Christmas has lost its meaning for me over the past few years. It’s the time where our annual consumption of goods and food reaches its climax. Like so many others, I am disenchanted by Christmas, and I don’t like the whole concept of Santa Claus. When I grew up, it was the Christ Child that came down from heaven at Christmas, not Santa Claus from the North Pole. It is well known that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December, but we follow the churches calendar anyhow. However, Christmas does not have to be a time of material over-indulgence. We have other choices.

To get us back on track, we can always learn from nature. In the natural rhythm of nature, winter is a time to turn inward. This is a simple truth, independent of any religion, and can be easily observed. Trees are stripped of their leaves and store their energy for new growth in spring. Animals withdraw from their active lives and hibernate. Seeds of fruit and vegetables lay dormant in the ground waiting for long, sunny days and the right conditions to sprout. The year’s darkest time has arrived.

At this time of the year, it is also natural for human beings to turn inward. We intuitively feel this, but let ourselves be distracted by the noise and hustle and bustle of holiday shopping. In fact, the more we consume, the more we become estranged from the spiritual. However, when we turn inward, we can search the depth of our souls for the Mystery behind the physical world.

The darkest time of the year, which surrounds Christmas, is an especially suitable time to remember the old sages and pray to or meditate with them. We can let ourselves be guided by Jesus, Lao Tzu, Guanyin, Buddha, or any other sages we feel drawn to that are not mentioned here. If we surrender ourselves to them, they will help us turn our focus around from the outer world to the inner one.

This time of the year is a holy time. It is a time of increasing yin energy. The outer darkness wants to lead us to our inner light. It is almost as if nature wants to take away from us anything that may distract us. All external activities we typically take pleasure in, such as sunbathing, boat rides, picnics in the park, playing ball, walks, etc. seem to be less or not at all pleasurable on winter’s cold and short days. Nature forces us to shift our focus. It commands of us to turn inward and take a walk through our inner landscape.

With or without our being fully conscious of it, we all do natural inner work at various degrees during the darkest time of the year. Each year, this inner work expresses itself outwardly soon after the 21st of December, the pivotal point where the darkest time of the year has reached its zenith. It is the time when we find ourselves making New Year’s resolutions. We have celebrated, contemplated, prayed, and meditated. We have taken stock of our inner and outer accomplishments of the past year. Usually, we come to the conclusion that we are not entirely on the right track.

There are always problem areas in our lives that need improvement. Something always seems to be missing. What could be the causes of our dissatisfaction and how can we remedy them? What is it that would make us happier? What do we need to do to further develop ourselves? Thus, we decide to use the occasion of the start of a new year as an opportunity to make a new start in our lives. We specify goals whose achievement shall make us happier. We determine the steps necessary to reach these goals.

This is what we do every year. Sometimes we yield moderate results. Often we find ourselves as unhappy as ever before. The results of our efforts will be only as good as the resolutions themselves. The resolutions will depend on our inner work and the depth of our knowing gained by it. If our inner work was superficial, the resolutions will be superficial, and so will be the results.

During the darkest and inward-turning time of the year, we search for the Truth and our role in it. We find it a little easier to slightly let go of the sensual and material world, which takes our focus away from the Truth. If we penetrate sufficiently deep into our interior, our knowing increases, our resolutions will be informed by it, and our goals will be solid. Whatever our new goals are, they will ensure that our internal flame keeps growing and our hunger for the Truth will not go unnourished.

When Yang-energy increases again and spring arrives, we meet it with more clarity. Despite all of its temptations to lose ourselves in the sensual and material world again, we stay balanced. In all that we do and enjoy in the physical world, we never lose sight of the spiritual. The knowing gained through our inner work during the darkest time of the year still lingers and informs us. All we have to do is stay focused and follow our new goals.

Though, the best thing is that we can pray, meditate, turn inward, be guided by the sages, and seek the Mystery at any time of the year. We do not have to wait for cold, short days and wintry, dark nights, or the season of Christmas. The Mystery is always present. We can always tap into it and let ourselves be informed and guided by it. All we have to do is look inside of ourselves.

Follow-Up Discussion of My Previous Blog Entry: The True Self

This is a follow up discussion of my previous blog entry, “Sunday Meditation: The True Self” with Deng Ming-Dao.

Deng Ming-Dao is an artist, writer and the author of eight books, with a ninth one, The Lunar Tao slated to be published in January 2013. In the discussion that follows, Deng Ming-Dao offers additional insight into the topic of my original blog post.

You can find Deng Ming-Dao on the web, on Facebook, and on Twitter

Sometimes someone else has packed our bags.

Sometimes, we’re afraid to open our bags, or are horrified when we do.

Sometimes we continue to lug the bag, even though we know it’s wrong, because we’re fearful of the alternative.

Sometimes we’re afraid that if we were to upend our bag and clean everything out that we would disappear.

It’s not easy for people to clean out their baggage.

andelieya: We can learn to periodically set the bag down. Once we experience the relief of the weight falling away, we may see the benefit in doing this more regularly and more often.

We may find to have a lot more endurance and be able to go much farther with regular breaks, than if we continually toted the bag without ever putting it down.

After a while, it occurs to us that we can also make the bag lighter and our walk easier if we just emptied some of its content out permanently. We come to the realization that it’s wise to carry along just enough, and everything extra is unneeded and unwanted.

By regularly and often putting our bags down, we can experience refreshing breaks of weightless moments. But while we must still carry our bags, by gradually emptying out all unneeded and unwanted content, they will be a lot lighter. Our endurance increases, and we can walk a lot further and higher without tiring.

DMD: So many of us were told never to put or bags down. Travel in airports with the amplified admonishments not to leave our bags unattended represents an underlying anxiety in our culture. Lock your house. Lock your car. Hold onto your wallet. Hold onto your kids. We aren’t used to putting down our bags.

Hold onto our reputation. Hold onto your job. Hold onto your marriage. Hold onto your sanity.

“She’s letting herself go!” “He’s losing it!” “Don’t let go!” The resistance to putting down our bag is high.

Yes, the classical teaching is to put down or bags. But let’s acknowledge that the task is hard and that all of us who are traveling with our burdens must have compassion extended to us for our burdens.

andelieya: It is so true! The examples you brought up really demonstrate the societal conditioning of our mind in thinking that we must never let go of anything, otherwise something catastrophic will happen.

Although, it seems as easy as just putting them down, letting go of our bags is the most daunting task we are faced with in life. The tendency to cling and not wanting to render full control is in the nature of an unchecked ego. Actually, it is paradoxical, because the ego only thinks it is in full control, but never really is to begin with.

Meditation is one way through which we can dampen the loud calls and many voices of the ego and, instead, listen to the silent, peaceful depth and breadth of our souls. (I intentionally use depth and breadth in singular form here, because this depth and breadth is the Oneness that all souls share.)

Through meditation we can learn to empty our bags of nonessential weight and to periodically put our bags down completely for brief, refreshing moments where we can see clearly the nature of ourselves and of all that is around us. We may even progress far enough to be able to put down our bags at anytime, anywhere.

Those of us who are lucky enough may come across a qualified teacher who will show us the method and guide us in finding our true selves.

Deng Ming-Dao, thank you for sharing your wisdom with me and my readers!