I didn’t want to be a Buddhist. If I’m honest with myself I still don’t, but the harder I try to escape it, the clearer it becomes that I cannot and will not ever let it go. I think that I should have known better than to take those vows, because I am now unable to break free.
Yet somehow whenever I slide back into Buddhism, I feel as if I’m slipping back into a pair of my favorite shoes: ones that have broken perfectly to my feet. It’s an odd feeling but a welcome one; the Dharma is familiar and comfortable.
One of the founders of the Western Buddhist Order (now rebranded as Triratna) wrote a book called Meeting the Buddhas. In it he described the familiar Buddhist icons known as mandalas as maps of one’s inner life and priorities. He asked us, his readers, what would be at the center if we made our own mandala.
I wrote in a previous post here, that I would put My Lady at the center of my own mandala. It was a reflexive answer, unprompted by any thought. Of course she goes there! Where else would she go?
The answer of course, is that there is more than one Saraswati in my mandala. She has ended up in every quarter and corner of my mandala and my life. She is the mandala just as she is my life.
One of the founders of the Western Buddhist Order, now known as Triratna, posed a question to readers in his book, Meeting the Buddhas: if your life was a mandala, what would be at the center? Is it your family, your job, your faith…what?
The three years since I began a formal relationship with My Lady Saraswati have gone by very quickly. Yet I feel as though She has always been in my life. I’m fairly certain she actually has, but I’m honestly also convinced that these feelings have more to do with how She has radically reordered my priorities and claimed her place in the center of my life’s mandala.
I’ve shared this picture before, and called it my personal Saraswati, without much other explanation. It’s a Sino-Tibetan silkscreen that I got off EBay; I have it hanging over my altar. I’ve become very fond of it. Look at that smile! My Lady’s got everything in this picture: the moon in her hair, little geese at her feet, and of course…the dragon.
While the smile was what sold me on this particular image, the dragon sheltering My Lady with a flower is a wonderful touch. It may not be the heart of the painting, but to borrow an expression from a mentor, it is the pupils in the eyes.
I associate My Lady Saraswati with dragons, serpents, nagas, snakes…all those ophidian creatures that both fascinate and frighten me. They are guardians of treasure and bringers of rain and storm. According to Buddhist lore, it was the nagas who hid the Mahayana sutras until the time came for them to be revealed. And of course one can’t forget Benzaiten-sama’s serpentine associations in Japan…
Someone new is in my life…I think? I’m not certain, as it could simply be My Lady in another one of her many guises. The entity in question, anyway, is the Sino-Japanese star deity known as Myōken.
Myōken is most often said to be the deity of the polestar, but his identity is quite fluid, hence my confusion. He is known by many other names, and is associated with many other deities in Japanese culture. Japanese polytheism (which is not limited to Shinto by any means) is complex and syncretic, and you can never be sure which deity you’ve got hold of.
I came to My Lady Saraswati via her Japanese persona Benzaiten-sama. Yet Benzaiten-sama is not only Saraswati; she is seen as the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Devi Sri, and various others. Her iconography overlaps with Oinari-sama, Dakiniten, and most importantly here, Myōken. Both Myōken and Benzaiten are associated with dragons and magic jewels, for instance.
Currently, the cultus I give Myōken is limited to observing the actual stars in the sky, and his shrine is a homemade paper talisman taped to the ceiling above My Lady’s shrine. I feel She has called me to the star god for a reason, if only to gain a greater understanding of Her.
I found my polytheism in the suburbs of Tokyo, in a Shinto Shrine to a Buddhist Goddess called Benzaiten-sama. She is better known as the Hindu goddess Saraswati, but She is worshipped across pretty much all of South and Southeast Asia under many names. In Tibet alone She has a myriad of epithets, most famously Yangchenma, “goddess of melodious sound.”
In Japan though, she is Benzaiten-sama. She came across the waters from China and Korea with books and Buddhism, while I came roaring out of the skies jet-lagged and stumbling.
I’d worked with Her for a few months, and already fallen deeply in love, but it was not until I’d stood on the grounds of one of Her many shrines and met fellow believers that I truly understood what that love meant.
My polytheism was born of hospitality for both foreign mortals and foreign gods.
My polytheism is community in diversity
I found a Saraswati puja online quite by accident, while doing research for a class project. The puja is short and simple, something I can do in the morning. The only problem is that I already have something I do in the morning – my Buddhist devotions. This is a problem, and My Lady is not giving much in the way of advice. She seems to feel that I have to sort it out myself…