Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Ekabhumi. Ekabhumi is a poet, artist, student, and teacher of classical Tantric Hatha yoga. He teaches yoga asana at Yoga Tree’s Telegraph studio, and in 2007, he became the national Head-to-Head Haiku champion. In 2010, he retired from producing poetry events to focus on producing sacred art and teaching yoga.
With Sounds True, Ekabhumi has illustrated a new book by Sally Kempton called Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Awakening Shakti has a wealth of meditations, visualizations, mantras, teachings, and beautifully told stories that provide a practical guide for activating the currents of the divine feminine in every aspect of life. Ekabhumi will also be with Sounds True at our 2013 Wake Up Festival, August 14th through the 18th in Estes Park, Colorado. Ekabhumi will be creating a yantra garden and other interactive art installations at the Wake Up Festival.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Ekabhumi and I spoke about the dos and don’ts of making sacred art, and also having an altar in one’s home. We also talked about yantras as tools for changing consciousness, and how to relate to sacred art images in a way that respects their true power. Here’s my conversation with Ekabhumi.
Ekabhumi, I’d like to talk with you today about sacred art. I know that you teach classes in sacred art, and I think this is a whole area where there’s quite a bit of confusion in the modern world. What is sacred art, and how is it different than, let’s say, fine art? Can we start there?
Ekabhumi: That’s a great place to start. I had a friend of mine ask me one time why I made a point of calling what I do sacred art. “Isn’t all art sacred?” she said. From a certain point of view, that’s absolutely true. From a certain point of view, we’re all one. That at the point where I would say, “Tami,” or I might say, “Ekabhumi,” then it’s useful to have names and categories and to have some discernment around, “What is this; what is that?”
Sacred art, to me, is any form of art or creative expression which points us back toward our inherent unity. It’s a reminder. It’s a magic mirror of our inner essence nature. I’ve got a whole list of things that I could go about describing it [with], but I think it would also be useful to say what it’s not.
Fine art really is about an individual’s expression most of the time. Now, I’m not about religious art, per se. But fine art really is about a sort of intellectual experience most of the time. I was trained in the fine arts, and most modern art is really about the artist’s individual experience.
I’m a big fan of Chögyam Trungpa, and he talks a lot about dharma art. But to me, dharma art—after reading his materials—it’s more about a process and the final object is kind of—you’re striving for a beautiful object, but the final object is kind of beside the point. It’s really about the process. And it’s wonderful, it’s very meditative.
But sacred art is useful. Sacred art has a purpose. Sacred art has been designed to function in ritual. And, of course, art therapy is sacred healing that can happen through art, and we can talk about craft where it’s useful and you can use it for sacred activities. But sacred art, to me, is really related to this process, this sadhana, this practice of ritual invocation of divinity.
TS: So when you say that sacred art has a purpose, what is its purpose?
E: The purpose of sacred art, in my view, again, is to really get us past this attachment to our individual ego.
TS: You have an interesting quote from some of your writings on sacred art: “Sacred art, from the yogic perspective, is sign, signifier, and signified in one.” And I thought it would be very useful to unpack this a bit—what you mean—and maybe you could give us an example of a piece of sacred art—an actual artwork—and help us understand it as sign, signifier, and signified in one.
E: Well, if I could simplify that down even more for people who haven’t taken art theory or post-modern theory—you could say that sacred art is both a noun and a verb, and even adjective. So it’s describing something it actually, literally is the thing itself—the physical object manifesting here where we can see it. And it’s also used. It’s a useful object that’s a device that’s used in ritual.
I’ll give you the quintessential example that I’m sure that every single person listening to your show has at least seen, even if they don’t know the name of it, which is the very famous Sri Yantra. The Sri Yantra is a geometric form. It’s got a square outline with gates or apertures on each side, rings of lotus pedals going towards the center, and in the center, we have nine triangles overlaid over one another to make this gorgeous and very distinctive pattern.
The Sri Yantra is both a representation of the universe itself—of the dynamic interplay of Shiva and Shakti—of the radiant quality of consciousness. And it has a pattern-like quality because consciousness itself is really just—you might say that a person, the point where we could call it a person—the Tripurasundarī, the tree that the Sri Yantra’s named for—as soon as you can give something a name, it’s a pattern. It’s a pattern of consciousness. It’s a coherent nugget of consciousness that you might call a person.
So it’s a thing that describes something. It’s an adjective. It’s related to the divinity. And yet there’s this deeper quality to it, that we can understand it literally as an expression of the divinity itself. Because—from this tantric view—everything that you can lay your hands on, that you can look at, really is solidified consciousness. It’s like slow consciousness. We can interact with it in a physical way. And so the yantra—being a distinctive pattern of consciousness that relates and points to this specific face of consciousness that we could call the goddess—it literally is the goddess. It is a tangible expression of the goddess, it just happens to be a more distinctive, recognizable face of the goddess than, say, the grapevine out in front of me or the chair that’s right next to me.
It’s also a device. Yan prana. It’s an enlightenment device. It’s an object that we use in ritual. So the Sri Yantra could actually be created out of flowers or out of colored fans or painted on a piece of wood or canvas or carved on a piece of copper, and then used in ritual. You could put a statue on top of it or you could throw flowers and libations upon it during a ritual. And really, it’s such a complex device—it’s such a complex symbol—it’s such a complex expression of divinity, there are whole books written about it. We could spend the whole hour just talking about it, and I think that [there] wouldn’t be anybody but Hindu esoteric geeks like me would really be into [it].
But suffice to say that it is something that describes divinity—for those of us that have a more dualistic view—to think of it [being] out there. We can look at it and say, “Ah, this is a map of divine enlightened consciousness.” We could also say—from a more non-dual view—that this is a distinctive expression of the goddess herself. We could also recognize it as a meditation device that we could use in our practice to help focus and harmonize our internal vrtti—motions of our consciousness.
TS: Now, the part where I got confused, as you were speaking, is the relationship between the yantra—this geometric shape that I think many of our listeners would be familiar with, especially people who are yoga practitioners—and the goddess. What are you referring to when you use the term “goddess?”
E: Well, to go back, you said “sign, signifier, and signified.” So the sign is the physical object itself. So here I have in front of me a piece of paper with a yantra drawn upon it. It’s a physical object. And it’s signifying—there’s a sign, signifier, and signified. You could say that the Sri Yantra—this geometric form that your viewers have become familiar with—this is the signifier, and it’s not the thing out in front of me. I have a physical object literally in front of me, and they have an idea in their minds—they’ve seen it on the computer. There’s a pattern, if you will, an icon, a logo that we’re all familiar with. That’s a signifier.
And what is signified is the goddess. The thing we need to be careful about—because I’m a nondual practitioner (at least I strive to be)—is this idea that it is separate from or different from the divinity that it represents. It literally is an expression of that divinity. And from the Hindu point of view, or from the Hindu tantric point of view, anything that’s physical—any power, anything that you can interact with physically or see—is understood to be Shakti or the feminine aspect of the universe itself—that material, diverse, plentiful quality of reality. This is the goddess.
And so I haven’t had that marvelous experience of a direct physical darshan of a divine being walking in the room. But on the other hand, I can look around at the sunshine outside and the trees and the floor in front of me and my cup of tea and understand that all of these are—you might say—cells in the goddess’s body. And that even relates to my name: Ekabhumi, “The One Earth.” We are all part of that single body of manifestation. This is the goddess. And it just so happens that this yantra is just a more distinctive, recognizable aspect of the goddess. But it’s no less goddess, it’s no less divine than road kill or a car or a piece of paper.
TS: Now, you mentioned your name, Ekabhumi. Can you tell us what your name means and how you got it?
E: Ekabhumi. Ekabhumi. And I’m just going to apologize to all the Sanskrit scholars out there. [Laughs] I’ve mispronounced it for years, so I can’t get upset if other people do. Eka means one, and bhumi means earth. It’s also an epithet for the goddess, the mother goddess that is the earth—Bhumi, earth goddess. [It’s] sometimes also used to refer to Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and abundance.
The guru told me, when he gave me the name, that it’s a practice name, it’s a teaching name. It’s almost like a mantra. People say it to me and it reminds me that we’re all connected—that we all belong to the same experience of being embodied. And for me, personally, I take it as a reminder to ground—be grounded; keep my feet on the ground. So one earth, and not in that sort of “one love” kind of way, but in that really primordial, “we are all one” kind of way.
TS: So let’s talk a little bit more about the yantra image. The sacred geometry that seems to be reflected in the yantra—can you speak some about that and the role of sacred geometry in sacred art?
E: Well, you know, I didn’t come into making sacred art out of a fascination with sacred geometry. And I’m learning about Western sacred geometry now as a way of being able to describe what I’ve learned about tantric imagery to people who are interested, who want to take classes, who want to learn about it.
I know some people get very excited that, “This is related to the building blocks of the universe!” or, “This is the inherit pattern-ness of creation itself!” Almost like you can control reality by understanding it, or you can control reality by naming it, which I think is a little absurd. I’m not mocking it. I just feel like it’s the wrong way to go about it because I feel it’s backwards.
I feel like there’s a beingness that happens when you’re deep in your practice, or there’s a beingness that happens when your mind is clear. And then you start recognizing the patterns as a way of understanding what’s going on. Because what’s really going on is beyond comprehension. It’s not something that an individual like Ekabhumi or Tami can control. It’s something we participate in, and then we recognize. At least, this is my experience. I’m just purely talking from my experience.
And so for me, the yantras are like—if you’re going to draw divinity, it would be like a stick figure drawing. It’s a very simplified form of an actual divine being, an actual pattern of consciousness. It’s very simplified. It’s a symbol. It’s also very real. It also directly relates to it. It very much is like a direct channel. But the sacred geometry—I don’t think we should over-fetishize “the square represents the earth element” and “the circle represents the water element.” It does, but I don’t want to encourage our listeners to think that—and this is where tantra can get a bad name, where people think of it as black magic—that you can use it to control things or get things. The understanding is that you can, and my experience has been, when I’ve worked with the yantras, mysterious things happen.
But really, I would prefer people to sit with the yantra and sort of let it wash over them. Then, as it starts making sense, they’ll become more curious and they’ll say, “What does this funny symbol on the side represent?” And I’ll say, “Oh, it’s a gate, just like a gate of a temple. And if you looked at an Indian temple from above, it would be in the form of a yantra. All traditional Indian temples are built in the form of a yantra.”
And they’ll say, “Oh, it’s square on the outside and not round, and it’s not triangular. Why is it square on the outside?” And I’ll say, “Oh, that’s just like the temples or a pyramid or a house. That’s the outer wall, and this is sort of creating a specific space for us to have a specific experience of divinity.” And people always say, “Oh, well, there’s a circle inside the square, and if that’s the earth element, then what is this next one?” They start seeing that there’s a pattern involved here.
You can also see that we’re going from dense to—I don’t want to [say] light, but more refined. We’re going from the earth element to the water element, which is the circle and the lotus petals. The lotus petals represent that expansive quality of divinity, and it’s related to the water element because water flows. And then we move towards the center and we see there are almost always triangles. And the triangles represent transformation, much like the fire element.
I came into Eastern esoterica—mysticism—and I heard people talking about the five elements. And I had had my good science training and I was like, “Oh, I’ve seen my periodic table. This is so primitive. This is so archaic, this five-element thing.” There’s a problem, always, when we’re translating Sanskrit—which is such a specific and sophisticated language—into English—which is such a hodgepodge of different cultures that have been glued together to make this language that we know. “Elements”—in this term—when we’re talking about the elements like the earth element, we’re not talking about dirt or we’re not talking about iron oxide. We’re talking about the quality of stability.
And so when we see this square that the yantra is built on, we’re saying that this divinity that we’re portraying has a stable expression in our awareness. And then when we see the circle, we’re not talking about water, like hydrogen and oxygen combined—H2O. We’re talking about the principle of flow—the principle of nourishment—that juicy principle; that sticky principle of life itself. So we’re saying that this divinity that we’re portraying is both stable and nurturing. And it flows.
As we move towards the center and we see that triangle, we’re not saying that this divinity is fiery—although they could be. We’re saying that this divinity expresses itself in a transformational way, a transformative way. This divinity has the power to [both] manifest and dissolve. So the upward-pointing triangle is representing disillusion, moving from diversity to unity. And the downward-pointing triangle is representing manifestation. So going from unity to plurality—to diversity. So it’s this quality of manifesting and dissolving, which is different from destruction and creation. It’s a more refined, more subtle quality, dissolving and manifesting.
And as we get closer to the center, there will usually be another symbol, depending on the divinity—what’s really close to their heart. And then you’ll see a dot. And this dot at the center, the bindu, is not a location like we would think of on a map. It represents the all-point, or the origin. It represents a space element or Akasha. It’s not space as in a measurable distance kind of thing. It’s more of a quantum idea. This represents the whole idea of being-ness. It’s the yin and the yang symbol all smooshed into one little dot. It’s the most primordial symbol that we can even think of. It’s the initial impulse, if you will.
And so when you look at a yantra, and you see that center dot, it’s not the dot, it’s not a dot. It’s dot. They all have the same bindu—just as, esoterically—as a yogi—I understand that the chakra, the bindu that we have at our heart, that heart bindu that all of us have—it’s not that we have identical hearts. It’s not that we have identical chakras. It is the same.
It’s the same bindu in each and every sentient being in the entire universe. It’s this sort of opening to the underlying primordial consciousness of the universe itself. It’s that all-point, it’s that starting point. It’s a timeless thing that’s really difficult to describe, actually. But the best that we can do is to make a dot. It’s about the simplest symbol that you can make in art or design, and that’s why it’s at the center.
TS: Now, Ekabhumi, we started by talking about what is sacred art and [how it is] distinct from fine art, and you talked about how in fine art, the individual really expresses themselves in some way. And that sacred art is more of this purposeful—could we say—repetition of this pattern. And what I’m getting at is, how much room is there for innovation when it comes to sacred art? The yantra—is that an image I just repeat, repeat, repeat? Or do I start bringing my own inspiration to how I render a yantra?
E: Well, I love using the example of a laptop. So you want a laptop—Tami Simon wants a laptop. She’s got work to do, she runs a major company, she’s got interviews to conduct on the phone. She needs to use her calendar, she needs to set up appointments, she wants to get to Google and ask questions. She needs a laptop.
So she goes to an artist and says, “I need a laptop.” And “laptop” in this case is standing for Sri Yantra. I’m using a metaphor. So, “I need a laptop,” and you go to an artist and you want a laptop, and the artist says, “Oh, I’m feeling very creative today, I’m going to give you a lawnmower.” And you’re like, “Well, no, I don’t want a lawnmower, I want a laptop.” And they say, “Oh, well, you know, I’m going to stick a whirling blade on top of it and put some wheels on the side. It’s still got a microprocessor in it; it still [has] a hard drive. But I’m just feeling the essence of lawnmower today.” And you’re like, “Well, I don’t really want a whirling blade on it, it’ll chop my fingers off when I try and use it.” You get the idea, right? You want a laptop.
So when we’re making this machine—this yantra—no, there’s no creative freedom in the basic arrangement of it at all. You want that computer to work in a very specific way. You want this yantra to point you to a very specific aspect of deity. And the proportions are all very traditionally aligned.
And I know [for myself] as an artist coming out of college, I really didn’t like Eastern art. It’s so stale, so stiff, so contrived. Such a lack of personality. Individual expression is what I valued in art. It’s what I thought that art was. And I didn’t really understand that although this is an art—making a yantra is art—it’s beautiful, it’s more like a cultural art that we participate in, if you want to get a very Western view. And you’re participating [in] this larger dynamic.
And so your innovation you bring to it is necessarily very small. It’s like you’re singing in a choir; you don’t want to start soloing in the middle of it, at least without talking to somebody about it first. You’re part of a bigger song. And so this yantra is a part of a much bigger dynamic than the individual artist.
Now, that said, once you’ve got this laptop built, and you’ve got the CPU and you’ve got the hard drive and you’ve got the wiring and you’ve got the speakers and the keyboard and the screen and it works, you can actually use it—you can get online, you can get to that divine spirit. Then you can ornament it, and I would say that you can do whatever you want to the outside of the laptop. You can put stickers on it, you can paint it colors, you can get out your fingernail polish and your markers—whatever you want.
But as far as the guts of it—the basic geometry, the triangles and the configuration—if you want it to work, then you’ve got to make it the way that it is. There’s not much room for variation. And if you’re a computer engineer—if you’re trained in making yantras—if you’re a guru—you can do some improvisation You can tweak it a little bit here and there to get different channels, just as an engineer might tweak a computer around to have it perform at different speeds or for slightly different functions. But there are limitations, and those limitations are really based on the way that consciousness works and how the universe is structured. And these yantras function in a specific way, and for that reason, they must be made in a very specific manner.
TheBhupar—the square part around the outside or anything outside of the Bhupar—just like the outsides of temples, are intensely, vigorously decorated. You can decorate the outer parts of the yantra. But that inner core—the functional part of it, the part that is distinct to the divinity that you’re invoking—that part does not change, no.
TS: Let’s talk a litter bit about the process of making sacred art. So let’s say somebody’s listening and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I really want to make a yantra. I bought one at some yoga craft display or whatever, but I really want to make it myself. What is the right approach and attitude—what are the requirements [or,] we could say, the dos and don’ts of approaching something like drawing, painting, coloring a yantra?
E: Well, I love that you say dos and don’ts, because I think that that’s a useful distinction. Talking about right and wrong, I think we start getting into moral statements or states of mind that I’m not sure is useful, especially in devotional work. And I’m putting devotional work slightly differently from yogic work.
With devotional work—when we’re simply evoking divinity because we love God, the rules aren’t so strict. We’re not asking for anything, we’re not demanding anything, we’re not pushing a lot of juice through it. It’s really just about invoking that connection of all beings, reaching out and invoking that loving awareness in ourselves. And when we’re doing this, the rules are very open. It’s like, do what makes your heart glad.
And I had one of my teachers, who’s a great bhakta—I asked him one time, I was asking about the length of arm and the length of the fingers in relation to the arm when I was doing this figurative picture. And another time I was talking about the colors and this, that, and the other thing, and he goes, “Do what makes your heart glad.” I thought that was so sweet. And so for your listeners out there who are just starting out—or they’re just really loving God—just approach the deity in a loving way. And without asking for anything specific, except for the deity to be near. The rules are very, very easy.
Now, for your listeners out there who are Jungians or who are ritual practitioners, then I would really say that there are a lot of dos and don’ts, especially with yantras. Yantras are very powerful devices, and I would discourage people from improvising. For example, it’s just notorious—people see a yantra and they’re like, “Oh, that’s cool! But I like purple and that one is red. So I’m going to make it purple.” And as soon as you do that, you’re rewiring the computer. And as soon as you rewire the computer, it’s going to function differently. As soon as it functions differently, it’s going to take you to a different place.
So if you take a Sri Yantra that has a specific set of colors, and it’s for a specific deity to get a specific experience of your enlightened nature, and then you start screwing around with it—putting extra symbols on it [like] Celtic symbols or African symbols and you start pasting those on there because they look cool, and you change the colors around because it looks bitchin’ and you put flames on it because you think that’s really cool. You’re grabbing from different traditions. You’re grabbing Tibetan flames and African scarab beetles and Western sacred Flower of Life patterns, and you’re putting this hodgepodge together. You’re making a hot rod, you know. You’re making this crazy alchemic device, but do you really know where it’s going to take you? Do you really know what it’s going to invoke in yourself?
And I would say, “Well, no.” I’ll really just put it simply. I remember my teacher saying one time—and it really just floored me. I mean, it sat me down and got me humble. He said, “You know, you guys want to improvise stuff. You should think about it a little bit. In our lineage, we don’t really roll out new practices until we’ve tested them out first. And this is compassion; we want to make sure that they work. We want to make sure that they work for a broad range of people in a broad range of circumstances. And so if you improvise your unique, individual thing you use for yourself, then keep it to yourself. That’s fine. You can experiment on yourself.”
And he goes, “But if you’re making this for public consumption—if you’re making it for other people to use . . . ” If your listeners out there are making a yantra that they want to put on an altar in a temple or even, I would say, on their own altar—I would say be very careful. Stick with the traditional forms until you have that mastery, until you have that knowledge.
And the simple reason is because otherwise you don’t know what channel you’re going to get to. You really don’t. And my guru said, “In our lineage, we’ll test out a teaching for a couple thousand years before we roll it out to the public.” I really just sat down and it took my breath away. And I realized what a larger dynamic I’m a part of when I’m working with sacred geometry and ascetic, tantric, Eastern tradition.
So I’m lumping a bunch of things together here—Vedic thought and tantric thought—but they are related. And these symbols are very ancient and they have been tested and they’ve been proved to work. And when I start improvising or playing around with it or changing the colors because I like pink instead of green, I really could be doing a great disservice to myself and to all the other people that may pick up this yantra after I make it.
You make an object as a sacred artist and you make it out of oil paints and you make it on a high-quality [surface], it could last a hundred years. It could be in front of a lot of people. And you don’t want to scare people off. You don’t want to make this road sign towards essence nature and have it pointing in the opposite direction—towards your individual preferences rather than a place that is beyond preferences. “A couple thousand years we test it out before we roll it out the public.” It really helped me to feel humble. [Laughs]
TS: One of the things I’m curious about—because there’s the making of the yantra—but then there’s how I’m relating to it in my life. So I have a yantra on a t-shirt, on a lunchbox, on a magnet, tattooed on my ass. It keeps going on and on. What are the limits there, do you think?
E: So again, I’ll go back to—you’re just really invoking divinity, and you’re just in this very bhakta, this very devotional, this very faith-based practice, and you just want to be reminded of this essence. It’s just love. And that’s very sweet. I personally—I made a yantra on a sticker and then somebody’s like, “Oh, this is cool!” They bought a yantra from me on a sticker. And I was like, “How nice, they’re going to take it home and put it on—” no, she took it right off and stuck it right on her butt. And I was like, [Gasps] “No!” [Laughs] I kind of cringed inside.
It’s rough. You’re not really supposed to put your feet on these symbols of essence. There’s this understanding that the feet relate to the earth element or to the hell realms—there’s all this esoterica. Without getting to be an esoteric weenie about it, I don’t want to make people afraid when I talk about this stuff. I want people to feel gladness when they approach it.
I just want to say it’s kind of like turning on the computer when you plug it in. There’s a lot of juice coming out of the wall. If you just like laptops, and they remind you of using computers and of your friends on Facebook—and you’re just glad about that and it’s kind of a decorative object—that’s fine. But if you’re going plug it in the wall, you’ve got to recognize that you could shock yourself really bad if you mishandle that plug.
And so yes, if you’re using it in ritual—if you’re going to put it on an altar—then there are rules, and you could really screw up your consciousness. These devices are designed to pattern your consciousness. You’re doing open-brain surgery on yourself.
When you’re changing your altar around and putting made-up symbols on your altar and then worshiping [them] or meditating on [them], I would say, “Man, if I’m going to get open-brain surgery, I’m going to ask for or look for an expert.” I want them to use sharp tools. I want them to use the tools that everybody else is using—that have proven themselves over time. And I want the medicine that’s been tested. I don’t want the doctor to show up today and say, “Oh, I feel like improvising, and I don’t really feel like washing my hands. That’s not so natural. I really think, rather than scalpels, I’m going to use a butter knife, because I just like the shape better.”
That’s ludicrous! We can understand that. And I would say, with a yantra, it’s open-brain surgery. You’re repatterning your karma.
So, stick with the traditional forms. Find a teacher. Go and find a guru. Be humble. What I tell people who say, “Where do I start? How do I start with sacred art?” over and over again—and maybe this is different for [other] people, and maybe this is going to hurt my cells when I teach sacred art classes—but I say start with your root practice. If you’re Christian, be Christian. If you’re a yogi, be a yogi. If you’re Buddhist, be Buddhist. Sit in your meditation. Say your prayers. Do your asana practice.
To me, sacred art is the fruit of the practice. It’s not the root. It’s the seed also—I mean, the seed is in the fruit. It can inspire you; it can go to the next stage. But it’s the fruit of the practice, and I say do your practice first. Do your root practice first. Then art.
TS: Now, if we’re putting an image on our altar—you said this is very powerful, looking at the altar is like open-brain surgery—what is the right way to relate to one’s altar? And I say this because I think a lot of people have home altars. Sometimes, I’ve gone into people’s houses and it looks like their home altar hasn’t been touched in a few months or something like that. And I’m curious what you think happens when we don’t tend to a home altar, and what, in your view, is proper tending?
E: Well, different traditions have different relationships with altars and with the external support for your internal practice. I think that also because we’re here in the West, there’s this sort of—I don’t want to say fear—but this wariness about icons, about worshiping symbols, about this golden calf kind of thing from the Christian standpoint. And even some Muslims sects are really anti-iconic. Even some Hindu sects are very anti-iconic and really don’t encourage the use of material support.
So these external objects are seen as material support for your internal experience. And so when you’re building an altar, you’re bringing in a work of sacred art. If you choose to bring a picture of Jesus into your home as a reminder of that kind of divine loving quality of divinity, I think that’s a wonderful thing. But now, if you’re building an altar to Jesus, there are rules involved, and it’s the same in the tantric tradition. It’s actually like anything in the Hindu tradition or in the tantric tradition. It can get quite complex. It’s not something just for this short conversation.
But I would say there [are] a few things we can keep in mind. Generally speaking, the altar’s placed in the east. The eastern part of the house symbolizes your connection with the rising sun, with rising energy, that quality of effulgence [in] the eastern direction. And you would generally want your altar—we’re talking about t-shirts and stickers and tattoos—you generally want your altar or your tattoo or any icon that you put on your body above your heart chakra, above your heart level, because you want the energy to rise up.
Generally speaking, in yogic practice, we’re dissolving the ego. We’re moving from diversity to unity. We’re going from the lower chakras to the upper chakras. Usually—not all the time—but usually. So usually, if you’re going to get a tattoo of a divine being, or you’re going to get a t-shirt of a divine symbol of essence, you don’t want to put it on your butt. You don’t want to put it on your knee. You want to put it above the heart.
And so wherever you place your altar—in your room or your home—generally speaking, even if it’s not in the east—each direction has a different flavor—but even if it’s not in the east, regardless of what direction it’s in, you want it above your heart level where you’re normally interacting with it. So if you’re standing when you interact with your altar, you want it above your heart level when you’re standing. If you’re sitting on the ground, you want it above heart level. Any symbol of essence—above the heart level. And this helps to move the energy upward.
Then, if you bring in a divinity—whether it’s a yantra or a statue—one my teachers said it really simply and I love it: They said, “Would you want this person as your roommate?” And I mean that quite literally. Do you want them as your roommate? Do you want Kali as your roommate? Do you want a blood-drinking, axe-wielding, severed-head-carrying, wrathful essence, nature goddess showing up and being your roommate—living in your house with you? Do you want that? Are you really going for that? Is that somebody that you can hang with on a 24/7 basis?
And I really mean that very sincerely. I’ve had this experience. It’s just really tangible for me, at least. You do not want to bring any icon of essence into your house—especially one that’s been worshipped before. That Asian antique that you got while you were on a trip that was used in a temple and you just thought it was cute so you just bring it home—you don’t even know who it is or what the name of that being is, it’s just so, “Wow, it’s so sexy, it’s so cool,” or, “Oh, I feel very peaceful.”
All those are wonderful things, but I would say especially if you’re an active spiritual practitioner [and] you are more sensitive to these things, for whom these things are more intensely experienced: be careful. Do your research. Before I have a roommate, I want a reference—I want to talk to their friends. I want to find out where they work. I want an emergency contact. You know what I’m saying? Think about it like a roommate.
So you have your altar in the east, you have it above heart level, you’ve done your research, you say, “Oh, I really love the Buddha. I do Buddhist practice. A bunch of my friends know the Buddha—my friends know him really well. This guy is a teacher; he knows all about the Buddha. We’re done the background check, we know the Buddha’s cool. We get along really well.” And so you bring home a statue of the Buddha.
So the Buddha will be in the center of the altar because they’re the central being. And any of their entourage—in different Buddhist traditions and different Hindu traditions, the divinities will have [an] entourage. They’ll have protector beings; they’ll have shaktis or consorts. So you might have friends that you put up there on the altar. And I would urge people to be careful about the friends that they choose. Just as you want to be careful about the roommate that you choose, you might not want to put that Egyptian goddess on the same altar with the Buddha. You need to make sure that they get along with each other.
So I live in the Bay Area. I live in Berkeley. So I go into people’s homes and I see these altars of every kind of icon of essence that you can imagine on them, and crystals, and flowers, and dead flowers, and incense, and candles. Some people are kind of lazy because they’re hippies and it’s all dusty. And so I say keep it simple. Have your roommate up there. Keep it clean. Have it above the heart level. Switch out the things that you put on the altar regularly.
It’s very important, because it’s symbolic. You’re repatterning your consciousness. It’s the operation table, if you will, to use a metaphor I used earlier. This is where you’re doing the operation. And just like you’d want the surgery room in the hospital to be clean—please, everybody out there, keep your altar clean. No dust. No wilted flowers. No old food. No stale water. Everything gets switched out regularly. If possible, every 24 hours.
So you put your icon of essence up there—your new roommate. You’ve kept it clean, it’s in the eastern direction, it’s above heart level, then we can talk about the five elements. And this is where I’m going to stop just to keep it as simple as possible. If your icon of essence, any of their friends—their dharma protectors, their consorts—and you have the main deity at the center, then you might put out some food—maybe even just rice—symbolic of the earth element. Maybe you put a little cup of water, symbolic of the water element. Maybe you put out a candle or you put up a jyotir—like a ghee lamp—to invoke this quality of transformation of one thing moving into the other through fire. The brightness of fire, the warmth of fire.
Maybe you put out a little cup or incense holder to hold the incense—and this is bringing that sweet smell that purifies the room, it kind of gladdens your heart, and it’s invoking what you may say [is] the wind element. Although the sense of smell is related to the earth element, different traditions use incense differently. For me, I see the smoke, it goes in the air, it perfumes the house—I think of it like as the air or wind element.
And then maybe you put a flower on it. And although the flower is made out of a physical thing, because it occupies space so beautifully, we think of it as invoking the space element. And so here you have the five elements on your altar, you have the deity on the altar, it’s above your heart level, you’ve kept it clean. This is a very—if you will—basic and safe way to go.
TS: Thank you. Now, Ekabhumi, you mentioned a couple of times working with a teacher, and I’d be curious to know what your experience is working with a teacher, and the most important lessons, if you will, that you’ve received from your teacher or teachers in sacred art.
E: Well, in a certain point of view, every person I’ve met and every student I’ve had is a teacher. And I think that when you go towards that deeper guru principle, you can recognize every experience as a guru. And when you go even deeper, you can recognize that just your own essence nature is the ultimate guru.
But I hear this said so much in the broader yoga world: “The only guru that matters is your own internal guru.” And at that point, I’d say, “Well, if you walked out in the street in front of a speeding bus, would you die?”
And at the point where you know that there’s good and bad—or what you said, dos and don’ts—you don’t walk out in front of a speeding bus. Until you’re at that really rarified stage of being in your essence nature and you’re so completely realized that when you walk in front of the bus, it’s no more real than your dreams and it’s no less real than your dreams—and the bus just passes through, or you die or you don’t die, you don’t care, or you die and you just come back. If you’re at that level of attainment, then sure, everything is the guru. And I think it’s good to remember that everything is the guru at that deeper level.
But for those of us that[say], “No, it’s not a good idea to walk out in front of a speeding bus, and maybe that’s not such a good idea because I can’t just evaporate my body when I feel like it anytime I please,” then it’s really useful to have a guru. It’s really useful to have an embodied teacher. It’s really useful, as my teacher said: “In our tradition, we discourage dead gurus.” You know, there [are] people who love these ancient gurus—and it’s good to love an ancient guru—[and] they’ll say, “This is my guru,” but they’ve never met this guru—they’ve never studied with anybody in that lineage, they just put the picture up on the altar—and that’s still legitimate; I’m not nay-saying that as a wrong thing.
But [my teacher] says, “We encourage living gurus because dead gurus can’t kick your ass!” [Laughs] And I think that’s really important because our ego—it’s so sticky, it’s so pervasive, it’s so stubborn. It’s so useful to have a living guru—a living teacher—somebody with whom you have a relationship. Not somebody who just showed up once a year and they bopped you on the head and they walked away. I mean, that’s still legitimate—don’t get me wrong—but remember the speeding bus thing.
It’s so useful to have somebody that can keep an eye on us, to call us out on our stupid stuff and point us in the right direction over and over and over and over again. Because for most of us, we need to be reminded over and over and over again. We need that quality. We need that parental reminder—those boundaries—at least at the beginning. We need a teacher.
And my experience with teachers, my guru—jai guru das—much respect. I hope Dharmanidhi—if he listens to this someday—has a smile on his lips. I really did not like my guru the first time I met him. I was really not keen on this guy. But he was the only one who could answer my questions. I had all these questions. I’m a curious person. I went to lots of different teachers and I got answers that didn’t make sense, or answers that didn’t check out when I was checking [them] against my experience and against the scriptures. And he kept giving me the right answers.
And then when he started giving me practices—and even when I thought he was giving them to me for the wrong reasons, or because of misunderstandings—when I just got humble and I was like, “OK, well, the guru gave me the practice,” and I just did it, I would get the fruit. My life would change. I would have the experience that I sought.
So I would say that really working with a teacher is beyond preferences. So maybe you don’t like gurus, or maybe you don’t like this guru. It doesn’t matter. It’s not really about liking; it’s not really about pleasure in that sense. It’s really where the rubber meets the road. What [are] the results? How does it work? What’s the point? Why are you here? Are they pointing you back to your essence nature over and over again, even when it’s uncomfortable—even when you don’t like it? Are they willing to give you the hard truth? Or are they waiting for you to put a donation in the basket? Or are they hoping that you pay for the next workshop?
To me, a guru—a real teacher—is the one that doesn’t give a damn whether you leave or you stay. They’re going to give you the truth whether you like it or not. That, to me, is a guru. And it’s not always fun. [Laughs] There’s another a quote that I love says, “If you’re feeling comfortable, you’re probably not doing spiritual practice.” Not real, deep, profound, transformational spiritual practice.
TS: Just to give us a bit more detail, can you tell us how you met your guru in sacred art, and what’s that been like actually working with him?
E: Well, I have a guru—and I go back to this over and over again, where I say, “Do your root practice and everything else will come from it.” I have a guru and he is not my sacred art teacher. He’s not an artist. He’s a hatha yoga guru. But in the tantric tradition, we use a lot of sacred art, and he commissioned artwork. And I love the artwork that he commissioned; I thought it was really fantastic.
And I met the artist that he commissioned the artwork from, and I’ve studied with that teacher—Dinesh Charan, who’s a very talented painter of the New Art tradition from Kathmandu. So he’s Nepalese. A wonderful, sweet person—and he holds very intimate classes in his living room with his family running around. And it’s so very sweet, it’s so very personal, it’s so very old world. How can I say this? You’re part of the family when you’re studying with a teacher like that.
And so my curiosity about my root practice, my yearning for a teacher who could answer my questions, this person pointed me towards the specialist—if you will—who then taught me the techniques for my specific sadhana, which in this case is sacred art. So it was my guru, Dharmanidhi, and my practice with him that made it possible for me to do sacred art.
And then once I had the discernment to recognize whether the teacher was appropriate or not, then I could go out and find the other teachers to supplement my root practice, like Dinesh. And then I went to India and studied with the senior teachers of the Harish Johari tradition to learn about yantras. And I can match my experience of the art from a lineage against my internal experience of the deity or my internal experience of dharma and see if it resonates and see if it’s right—see if it’s appropriate—see if it’s in alignment with my experience and alignment with my practice.
But I really feel like people need to cultivate their internal discernment first before they go out and start seeking a teacher. Now, I know that sounds like a catch-22—it’s like, “How do I practice if I don’t have a teacher? And how do I recognize the right teacher if I don’t practice?” And therein is the spiritual journey itself, and I leave it up to your listeners to figure that out, because that is the practice. [Laughs]
TS: So Ekabhumi, you’ve created 20 different images—20 different illustrations—that are part of a new Sounds True book with Sally Kempton on Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. So in this book, there are illustrations that you’ve drawn of Rama and Sita, of dancing Kali, of the goddess Durga, the goddess Lakshmi. And I’d love to know a little bit what you’re experience was actually creating these images. What was this like for you?
E: I love making sacred art. I really enjoyed working with Sally. I’d never worked with her before. I’d heard so much about her and I love that she has this visceral experience of divinity. I love that she feels this personal relationship with the goddesses, because that’s what it feels like to me. I feel like I’m calling up a friend on the phone. I’m getting all teary eyed—I love hanging with these wonderful friends of mine.
And even the rough ones, you know? Sometimes you hang out with your fun friends, your nice friends, your reliable friends. And then sometimes you just want go out and kick some ass and go crazy. You’ve got your crazy friends, too. And what’s so wonderful about this tantric tradition is that there’s a whole spectrum. You’ve got your beautiful, reliable, benevolent friends, and you’ve got your crazy, wild, and nutty friends. And they’re all there. You get to hang out with them, and you get to spend time with them. They’re so tangible when you’re working with them in this way, when you’re chanting the mantra. It’s just as real as talking to somebody on the phone, for me.
And when Sally called me up and asked me to do the book—me being who I am—I said, “Why don’t you call up my teacher? He’s amazing, you should talk to him.” And she’s like, “Oh, I’ve looked at his work. It’s so beautiful.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you talk to this painter? And why don’t you talk to that painter? I’ll put you in touch.” And she’s like, “Their work is very beautiful. I really like their work. It’s very sweet, but I want to work with you.” And I asked her why, and she says, “I really want darshan images. I want images to transmit the essence of the divinity itself. I want to feel the goddess when I look at the picture.” And right then I knew I was going to take the commission. I was like, “Done. Whatever I get paid, I’ve got to do this commission.”
Because this is why I make sacred art. I’m not in love with Indian culture, per se. I’m not fetishizing making pretty objects. That’s not why I came into it. It’s really about making that connection to that rarified, pure, electric, direct connection with this divine essence. It’s this transmission quality—this feeling of it moving through me and just coming out on the page. It’s just this amazing thing. I sit there in awe of what’s happening in front of me. That’s when I know it’s going right. It’s like I’m surprised by what my hand is doing.
It’s this wonderful relationship. That’s the best metaphor—it’s like dancing with a really skilled partner. They’re so strong and they’re so knowledgeable and they’re so sexy. And they’re just taking you through this beautiful dance that you never even knew you could do. And you don’t know the steps, but they’re so elegant—they’re so skilled—that it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s just an amazing, amazing experience.
TS: Well, I love the way you speak of the goddesses of yoga as potentially friends that we can have. And I’m curious—in the process of creating these 20 different images—was there one friendship that really stood out for you, and could you share with us that experience, the experience of actually creating the image and getting to know that friend in a deeper way?
E: Well, my Ista-devatā—or my tutelary deity that was assigned to me—is Kali. And something that Sally and I bonded on really closely was that we feel that Kali is often depicted in a way that doesn’t match our experience of her.
I want to clarify this because I know that some of your listeners are probably very knowledgeable. And before I was urging people not to improvise and not to make stuff up based on their personal experience, especially if it’s going to be used in practice. So I just want to be careful to say that I’m not just making my personal experience of Kali when I [drew] this dancing Kali, because it was a bit [of an] unconventional image. I’m also respecting Sally and her experience, and she’s a very knowledgeable teacher, and she really guided me on this image. We did several different versions of it.
And I’m also saying that I went back and I’ve read the scriptures, and I’ve read the 1,008 names of Kali, and I’ve done many years of practice with her. There are descriptions of her in this form, doing this practice, looking this way—beautiful and smiling and enjoying herself, and I wanted her to look like she’s laughing. She’s described over and over as laughing. She’s the only Hindu deity that I know of that’s consistently—of the great Mahadevas—described as laughing.
And so often you see pictures of her and she’s looking pissed off, or she’s looking scared—and maybe she could be those things, too. But they say the fruit of her sadhana is fearlessness. How can people make these fearful, scared, embarrassed-looking Kalis? It doesn’t make sense to me. It just doesn’t match.
And so I keep hearing about how she’s enjoying herself—how she’s dancing on the cremation ground, how she’s laughing with the joy of her wrathful expression. And so I wanted to make an image that matched the description that Sally had in the book and matched my personal experience of this joyful, beautiful mother of all beings—this goddess of time.
And she’s slim. She’s still this space, wind-element body—that bhakta-genic body. She’s slimmer than Lakshmi or Mahagauri, for sure. But she’s beautiful. She’s sensual. She’s dancing. This is the Guhya Kali—this is the secret dancer Kali. This is the sensual Kali. And she’s also described in the traditional literature. It’s just that images of her are so rare—and especially in the West, where people seem to fetishize the destructive, fearful, scary aspect of Kali.
I think it was medicinal to publish this image of her as a mother of all beings, because time—Kala. She eats her babies. It’s true. But time also heals all wounds. Time is also the mother of all beings. So we wanted to put a joyful Kali in there.
TS: And Ekabhumi, I just have one final question for you. If we run into a piece of art that we think, “Oh, this is sacred art,” and maybe it happens when we walk into a yoga studio or we walk into a Buddhist temple or a Christian church—anywhere. We walk into some place, maybe a store, bookstore, and we see a piece of art and we go, “Wow. I feel something. That feels to me like a piece of sacred art.” A sculpture, a painting—anything. What would be your recommendation to somebody [about] how they could relate to that piece of art that they have spontaneously encountered, such that they are really the most open and transformed by it? How do we do that?
E: And this is such a fantastic question—and I would say that it’s probably the hardest question for me to answer, because bringing a divinity into your house is much like taking up a sadhana. It is a spiritual practice. And so it’s kind of like saying somebody likes Christianity—how do they start being Christian? It’s really that profound of a question.
So first off, my first answer would be, recognize—and I think it’s so important, you said this intuitive opening. I don’t think a lot of people give themselves permission to recognize intuition as a valid form of discernment. So the first thing I would say is recognize that opening, that experience that you’re having in your heart. When you’re like, “Oh! It’s so wonderful! I want to bring him or I want to bring her home with me to live with me.” Just recognizing that right there is an incredible first step. So recognizing that opening—recognizing that intuitive jolt—right there is so important.
The second thing I would say is walk away. [Laughs] Turn around and walk away. And it’s really simple [as to] why. You want to make sure that somebody else didn’t just have a heart-opening experience in that spot, in that store, just a minute before you and you’re picking up on the echo of that. You want to make sure that you’re not just having a hormonal moment. You just ate a bar of chocolate and you’re feeling really high, or whatever. I would say turn around and walk away. It’s the same advice my guru’s given when people have asked him about, “What if I need somebody and I think they’re my soul mate? I think it’s karma!” He says, “Turn around and walk away, because if it’s karma, you won’t be able to avoid them. If it’s really meant to be, then you’re going to remember them the next day.”
So I would say turn around and walk away. And if it’s still in your heart, and you’re still having that process that was initiated when you saw this icon or you saw this yantra or you saw this statue—if that heart-opening process is continuing and you’re still thinking about them—they’re showing up in your dreams, you still smile when you think of it and you’re like, “Ah!”—and you have that experience, then go back.
I mean, this is tough when you’re on the road in India and you’re traveling and you see this thing, and you’re like, “Ah, I’m never going to be here again, I just want to get it right now!” And then I would just urge caution. Just really, really check in deeply. Remember that caution I [mentioned] about bringing a roommate home. You see some sexy somebody by the side of the road in a foreign country—you want to bring them home with you?
We’re so privileged in this day and age in America, Tami. We’re so privileged in this day and age of the Internet. A specific icon may have a specific energetic—it may have a specific, wonderful power for you individually. It’s true. But really, Amazon is amazing. You’ve got amazing little shops right there in Boulder, where you’re based, that have icons of essence from all over the world. If you miss it this one time, don’t fret. If it’s karma, you’re not going to be able to avoid them anyway. [Laughs]
So my second step—I’d say first off, recognize the impulse; second step, walk away. Then the third step is wait until you’re drawn back. Wait until you know that it’s right. Give it 24 hours at least. And then do your research. Do a background check, just like you check on someone on Facebook or your do your social media or your dating website or whatever. Do a little research—like, “Oh, this looks like Dhumavati, and she looks so wise. And who is Dhumavati?”
So you do some reading, and you pick up Sally Kempton’s book, which lists a whole bunch of wonderful goddesses—and you’re like, “Oh, wow, I really feel this deep connection.” Or you read up and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to bring that home!” And you clarify your experience and your relationship with it. But you don’t forget about it.
And even if you’re scared or even if you’re still feeling love, you go back there and then you check it again with the added knowledge—with the 24 hours of letting the storm clouds of passion wash by, pass over, and wait for some clarity. And then you go back, you see it with fresh eyes, and you see if it’s still true—if you’re still feeling that connection, that intuitive unfolding of your heart. And if that’s still real, then sure, bring it home.
Do your research. Practice. Don’t just sit it in a corner and let it collect dust. For God’s sake, don’t put it in the bathroom. [Laughs] Put it in a place of honor. Put it in an exalted place. It might be better to put it in the living room than in your bedroom. It might be better to put it in a quiet place where the cat’s not going to jump on it or the kids aren’t going to play with it than it is in, say, the kitchen. Put it in a place where there’s a little bit of peace and quiet—where you can sit with it and have that internal experience that you recognize when you first saw it, and invoke that unfolding quality—that intuitive impulse all the way out to its logical conclusion, which may really be enlightenment.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Ekabhumi. He is the creator of 20 illustrations that are included in a new Sounds True book by Sally Kempton called Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Ekabhumi also teaches sacred art and he’ll be with us at the Sounds True 2013 Wake Up Festival August 14th through the 18th in Estes Park, Colorado. And he’ll be helping us set up a yantra garden as well as other surprising interactive sacred art installations. I’ve been calling Ekabhumi—in my own internal code for the Wake Up Festival—the “Minister of Ah-Ha.” I’m so glad that he’ll be with us.
Ekabhumi, thank you so much for this conversation. Thank you.
E: You’re very welcome. Thank you so much, Tami. It’s really been a joy.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.