The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming essay collection Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams. It’s printed here with permission as part of our commitment to Covering Climate Now.
I. Yunnan Province, China
The temple keeper stepped out of the small room into the opening where a fountain rose from the middle of the terrace. He was dressed in saffron robes and his name was Daniel. It had been his voice we heard chanting above the river.
He walked to us. Brooke stood. I barely looked up from the bench where I was sitting. The temple keeper put his hands on mine. He spoke slowly, deliberately. Aaron, our guide, native to this area, translated, “He says this happens sometimes, women lose the excess of all they are carrying. He said this place has powers that can overtake people, but that you will be fine.”
At this point, was so sick–having shit my guts out and thrown up everything I had eaten for days–I didn’t care about explanations, I just wanted relief. Empty and aching on the verge of delirium, the outback of China was not where I wanted to be.
Daniel spoke again.
“He said that he is going to get a vial of medicine for you to drink.”
The temple keeper turned and disappeared back into his quarters. I was lying on Brooke’s lap, looking up at the precipice required to climb up in order to get out. Whatever I had been carrying from the rim of the canyon, I had lost: especially, the illusory mind that believes we are more than our biology.
Earlier that morning, Aaron had prepared ti kuan yin tea for the three of us beneath the pavilion that overlooked the Shaxi Village located on the Tea Horse Road. Ti kuan yin is one of the most elegant of Chinese oolong teas, known for its floral quality akin to the scent of orchids. It is associated with Kwan Yin, the Tibetan goddess of mercy, who stands on the edge of Erhai Lake in the town of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province.
Our journey from Dali had become a vertical dreamscape into remote mountainous terrain reminiscent of the Kaibab Plateau near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, thick with ponderosa pines anchored in red soil. I felt at home until we saw monkeys.
Our descent into this canyon promised to take us to seventeen stone grottoes devoted to the goddess of mercy built in the Tang and Song dynasties, from the eighth century to the eleventh century. I think about mercy, a word I seldom use, a word I would do well to embody, a disposition to be kind and forgiving; compassion or forbearance, especially shown to an offender.
This place was made known to me by a whisper from a young woman I met in Shanghai. She told me I must see the shrine of Ayang Bai devoted to the Divine Feminine, a holy pilgrimage made by women for thousands of years, where they made their prayers known to the goddess.
After tea, we set out on foot, crossing the threshold marked by a three-tiered sandstone arch–I stopped and had to remind myself where we were. Aaron and Brooke had hurried down the trail.
I was walking slowly, deliberately, noticing small details: the slight drop in temperature, the music of wind between the pines, the offerings of bundled sticks placed on eroding hillsides by those also making this pilgrimage. I had begun to feel queasy, light-headed, unstable on my feet, but kept walking, trying to breathe in the freshness. My stomach was being ambushed. I ignored my body until it had doubled over in a knife-blade-sharp pain followed by a violent release; there is no denying the flesh. I would walk a few feet then heave-walk down another switch back and squat in the trees. Brooke was far ahead. I just kept trying to take in where I was, the red rocks, the pines, the jays, the familiarity of the land, until the hand wrapping of sticks placed purposefully at bridges, or at the base of selected trees, turned sinister. Becoming weaker and weaker, I feared the territory I was in and its insistence that I pay attention, as its gravitational force kept drawing me down to my knees.
The temple keeper returned with the potion. I sat up. He talked to Aaron. Aaron nodded his head and spoke to Brooke: “She needs to drink this. She will become unconscious and sleep for some time. When she wakes up, she will be fine.”
I looked at Daniel and said, “Thank you.” He gave me the drink. The vial felt like a mercy as I held it and thought of my father’s anger should I die far from home, doubting if sorrow would ever reach him from this distance. I didn’t care. I drank whatever was in the vial–horribly bitter–and that is all I remember.
The steep stairs carved into the side of the mountain were no longer an obstacle, but a rising toward fate. I could feel the footsteps of women before me and behind me through the millennia urging me upward. Whatever the temple keeper had given me reached me as an elixir. Miracle or medicine, it didn’t matter. I was back in my body upright and walking. We bypassed dozens of small grottoes, stone niches dripping with ferns that framed the intricately carved deities shadowed inside. They captured my peripheral vision as we climbed quickly to the top of the mountain–Brooke worried that my energy would wane. Close to the large horizontal grotto we paused, caught our breath, and prepared ourselves to enter the shrine of the goddess.
Aaron, Brooke, and I looked over our shoulders across the vast ravine to the other side of the canyon. My western eyes saw wilderness, but that was another illusion.
The afternoon light intensified. We ducked inside the cave. There she was–Avalokiteshvara–illuminated in the female form. The goddess of mercy was meticulously carved into the sandstone wall with a turquoise aura painted around her. I judged her to be twelve feet tall, but hat could have been the measure of my awe. The Buddhist text the Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as “a bodhisattva who can take any form. She can be male, female, adult, child, elderly, human, non-human, in order to teach the Dharma.” A shape-shifter, she is also known as Kwan Yin, and she emerged before us as a flaming vision of both disruption and compassion. I wished my mother and grandmothers were here with me to witness the heat of her presence. A small rectangular niche appeared in the center of her chest where her heart should reside. Brooke and Aaron speculated over why the empty space. I could not listen to their chatter. My eyes flashed a simmering impatience and they left.
Kwan Yin’s right hand was raised upward with palm closed at shoulder height; her left hand protected a bowl resting on her lap. I raised my heels to look inside the bowl–it held her heart. I wept over what every woman knows. We give away our hearts daily. What remains is emptiness.
Stone-carved curtains (like those often seen in theaters) scalloped above the goddess, then hung down on either side of her, giving the appearance that Kwan Yin’s secrets had just been revealed. The goddess sat on her throne against the blackened wall of the grotto. She was flanked by two attendants: one held a box, the other a water vessel. Her eyes looked beyond me, nothing personal, to the view across the valley. She cast her gaze toward the sandstone cliffs where a large stone stood erect in the presence of towering pines rooted in pink sand. Birdsong became her voice.
I stared at Kwan Yin until I was too weak to stand, and sat on the cold floor of the grotto feeling the longing and desires, the pain and the power of all the women who had walked here. I felt the power of my own ancestors who had walked the path of heartlessness.
I paid my respects to the goddess–lowered my head–then climbed the necessary steps and exited the cave.
The rock wall on my immediate right caught my attention. Inside a large hollowed niche was a vagina, approximately three feet tall, carved out of black stone poised on a pedestal. It appeared as a smooth oblong mountain standing upright with a slit running down the center. Here were the lips of the Divine Feminine, from which all things are born–the site of our emergence–set apart, exposed, swollen, and wet, consciously oiled by the hands of pilgrims so it remains perpetually moist. What my friend from Dali had whispered in my ear weeks ago, I was now witnessing. Pure feminine power. I knelt on the carved lotus pillow at its base and prayed.
I prayed for strength to remain open and receptive.
I prayed to love and be loved in all its manifestations.
I prayed to be generous, to give and receive.
I prayed for the forgiveness of those I have harmed.
I prayed that I might survive my griefs and express my gratitude.
I prayed to honor differences, while seeking unity.
I prayed for discernment, to praise what is beautiful and to sanctify what is not.
I prayed for the poor and I prayed for the lonely.
I prayed for the health and wholeness of all beings, human and wild.
I prayed for my body and the body of Earth, believing we are One.
I prayed for arousal that leads us to birth. I prayed for rain in times of drought.
I prayed for mothers in their times of need as they meet the needs of others.
I prayed for each woman, whose heart has been ripped from her chest through sorrow and love, through violence and abuse, through forgiveness and grace.
I prayed for the wisdom that rises within us when we no longer bleed.
I prayed to the Divine Feminine upon which our consciousness depends.
I prayed for courage that we might face what is coming. Two guardian deities stood outside on either side of the yoni, both of them in the act of charming snakes, one with her mouth open, one with her mouth closed. This was not Eve being seduced by Satan. This was knowing how to handle skillfully that which threatens to kill us.
What has threatened to kill me is the patriarchy, not because there are men in power, but because patriarchy is an institution. Institutions have no heart. They have agendas, self-serving mythologies delivered through religion, politics, business, and every other hierarchical bastion of influence that subjugates the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised largely, women and children.
The patriarchy replicates itself in order to protect its interests: power in the form of control and commerce. Hoarding power is hoarding fear. Scarcity rules. Sharing power is a belief in what the next generation knows and that it will benefit a sustaining view of the future. This is an evolving consciousness that transcends the individual, and fosters the many. Perhaps this is the subversive stance Kwan Yin is demonstrating in the Shibaoshan grotto. In Japan, Kwan Yin is male. In China, he is transformed into female. The space of compassion remains open and infinite as she shares her love with others. In this clarity and paradox, her power is her emptiness. She offers her heart, which she alone placed inside her bowl, realizing what feeds her. She gives others a chance to replicate not the withholding of power but the regeneration of power through love.
These stone statues have survived thousands of years. They know something through the visitations of women who have emptied themselves in order to stand before them and be filled again by all they have lost. My friend from Dali told me that the Bai women, indigenous to this part of China, make their annual pilgrimages by bringing not only their dreams and aspirations, but their griefs and transgressions. They lay their blessings and burdens at the feet of the goddess and make offerings to the yoni. They bring oils and lubricate the stone lips in a gesture of assurance that life will continue even in the presence of death. The women run their oiled fingers and hands down the slit that has pleasured them, hurt them, ruined them, and seen them split open again and again by those they loved; they smother the widening crack with oil, acknowledging that this is the treacherous threshold each of us has had to cross in order to live and breathe our way, and the future of humanity, into being.
And I can imagine that as each woman touches the yoni, she feels the river of her own desires swell-leaving her in a state of wanting.
Our origin stories begin here.
No wonder I’d had to purge myself, trust a male gatekeeper, risk death, and awaken in order to come to this place of beginnings sculpted in stone. I walked back up the canyon past the stick offerings, mindful of the pink sand at home and the pink sand here in this remote part of China. The bridge between these two landscapes is sensation, what my body holds, what my body feels, and what my body remembers. I picked up my pace to meet Brooke and Aaron on top of Shibaoshan Mountain, where they were experiencing a different view of where we had been.
II. The True and the Real
JUNE 20, 2014
The Salt Lake Tribune
I stand in solidarity with Kate Kelly and her plea to grant women equal standing in the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the right to hold the priesthood.
Revelations occur. Whereas polygamy was once sanctioned through revelation, now it is not. Whereas African Americans were told they could not hold the =priesthood, now they do. Doctrines that denied dignity or defied the rights of law to individuals within the LDS Church have changed through modern-day revelation.
The time has come to shift the religious inequality toward women and allow sisters to lead alongside their brothers in prayer and power and purpose.
For the Mormon Church to continue to preserve this spiritual patrimony is to affirm its organizational misogyny. Why is it apostasy to ask for half of its membership to have equal power under God? Why is a vision to ordain women worthy of disciplinary action and excommunication, when twelve-year old boys are “given” the priesthood? Why are men and women not equal under God’s eyes?
This kind of governance should not be tolerated. And it should not be tolerated by those of us who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The question must be asked: What are you afraid of?
In 1977, I watched the Mormon church undermine the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Salt Lake City. It is a well-known and documented story. And in 1979, I watched Sonia Johnson similarly demonized and disciplined, ironically, by her local congregation in Virginia, as well, for speaking out for the rights of women, which led to her excommunication. And in 1993, I witnessed Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr exercise her voice concerning violence against women at Brigham Young University, and when she spoke out on behalf of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, I watched her charged with “violating her responsibilities as a university citizen” and accused of “undermining the faith of her students.” She did not pass her three-year review and was denied her teaching contract.
At this same time, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MacArthur Fellow, was rejected by BYU’s Board of Trustees as a keynote speaker at BYU’s Women’s Conference. Was it because Ulrich was a founding member of Exponent II, a feminist journal for Mormon women? The year 1993 was also the year of “The September Six” excommunications. Six Mormon scholars, half of them feminists, were excommunicated for raising questions of sexism, homophobia, and intellectual inconsistencies within LDS religious doctrine.
This is our history. I thought the era of retribution was behind us. Apparently not. Kate Kelly speaks for all of us within the LDS Church who care about an equality of power for women-active members and dissident members like me–men and women, both–who believe there is no difference in the spiritual aspirations between men and women, gay, straight, or transgender. Each of us are the creators of the world we wish to live in, with equal power, equal voice, and equal opportunities beyond the womb.
At a time when sexual assault, rape, and repeated acts of violence against women are under public scrutiny and part of the public conversation that is happening around the world, the Mormon church’s ongoing policy to withhold ordination from women is its own act of violence.
Before my mother died, she faced her young granddaughters and said, “I pray that one day you, too, will hold the priesthood.”
I believe my mother’s voice was prophetic, delivered with love and wise intention. Kate Kelly is delivering this intention now and it is not without the labor pains of a movement with momentum. I do not believe Kate Kelly should be disciplined for her vision of women ordained. Nor do I believe she should be excommunicated for exercising her voice in public. Her disciplinary hearing, set in Virginia, where she no longer resides, is another attempt to silence women by a world religion run by men.
Behind Kate Kelly and Ordain Women, there is a long lineage of women, old and young and in between, not interested in asking for permission or hoping for a revelation from above, but rather, ready and willing to carry this vision forward in prayer and in action, for the simple reason that it is time. This is not an act of apostasy, but an act of self-respect, and a belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will honor its sisters of faith, not punish them.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
Castle Valley, Utah
NOVEMBER 23, 2018
Castle Valley, Utah
We are eroding and evolving, at once. Let this be my mantra to be repeated daily. What if beauty dwells in the margins of our undoing and remaking? Why do men continue to be the gatekeepers of our bodies and spiritual life, even those who stand with us? What will happen if the patriarchy and the Divine Feminine continue to be in conflict with one another, as we witnessed in the hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and the testimony of Professor Christine Blasey Ford as she shared her story of being sexually assaulted by him? What if confirmation in today’s world simply means the patriarchy wins? What if the #MeToo movement is the beginning of redefining love, energy, and power? Can self-love and self-respect become love and respect for the planet?
Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, sits in a grotto in China holding her heart inside a bowl ready to give it away; Kate Kelly in Utah calls for women to have parity with men, so that the power of the priesthood within the Mormon Church becomes a power shared in co-creation; and the priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin sees the evolution of the Earth in partnership with the evolution of consciousness. This he names “Christogenesis,” where Jesus becomes the catalyst for a spiritual evolution tied to the act of becoming. We begin to see a changing paradigm based on the regeneration of love, not power–but still I question our human exceptionalism.
Is Earth not enough?
I need these words tattooed between my shoulders so heaven can read them burned into my skin when I lie on the ground breathing in sage and listening to the ravens flying over me.
Jesus Christ is my brother, not a god, this is the heart of the matter.
In the desert, I inhale the dust of the cosmos and try to exhale my ego. I am not the center of the universe; I am part of an expanding consciousness becoming conscious of itself in relationship to everything else. I do not fear excommunication from anything save the pink sand beneath my feet and a night sky of stars penetrating darkness.
There is a different way of knowing the world and I believe it begins with the Encounter. The thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist monk Shinran, who founded the Pure Land School of Buddhism, speaks of a practice as not something we do, but rather something we become–a practice allows us to become more of who we are.
What is my practice? I believe in the practice of Encounter. I encountered Kwan Yin and in that meeting encountered myself. The empty space where her heart once was became my own emptiness. A beautiful rupture. A rupture not only acknowledged but seen and felt as a severance from my true nature. I was born into a religion foreign to my soul. It cut out my heart. Kwan Yin handed my heart back to me. Something happened. The stone bowl held in Kwan Yin’s hands became a sound bowl struck by my own desire and longing in one clear reverberating note: Love.
Whatever I know as a woman about spirituality I have learned from my body encountering Earth. Soul and soil are not separate. Neither are wind and spirit, nor water and tears. We are eroding and evolving, at once, like the red rock landscape before me. Our grief is our love. Our love will be our undoing as we quietly disengage from the collective madness of the patriarchal mind that says aggression is the way forward.
One night, I watched the full moon rise over Adobe Mesa with friends from the vantage point of our home. The moon slowly rose higher and brighter until its light created shadows on the stone patio. We turned and faced our shadows, inviting them to dance with us, while the willow’s shadows also swayed, as we swung our arms above our heads, our bodies moving joyously together.
The Divine Feminine is not a mystical presence outside us, but an embodied presence within us made of flesh and bones, xylem and phloem, fur and scales, inhabiting every inch of this planet we call home. Humility is the way. Evolution is the path. Revolution is coming as our wellspring of desires finally meets Earth on its own geologic terms. We are eroding. We are evolving. This is my mantra. The time has come to stop seeing ourselves as saviors and instead see ourselves as human beings on a burning globe capable of acknowledging the harm we have caused. Do we dare to hold our severed hearts in our hands as both an offering and a sacrifice in the name of all that is now required?
© 2109 Terry Tempest Williams, from the collection Erosion: Essays of Undoing published by Sarah Crichton Books . Reprinted with permission.
Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; and When Women Were Birds, among other books. Her work is widely taught and anthologized around the world. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School. She and her husband Brooke Williams divide their time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Castle Valley, Utah.