Chakra Insight Oracle

The telling of cards is an old and intriguing system of divination which has, in recent years, undergone an incredible expansion and growth in popularity.
Most of this is directly attributable to the various angel cards of Doreen Virtue and the numberless other oracle cards that have been subsequently produced by the endlessly inventive Hay House.
I am excited to see, however, that Australians are producing fascinating and beautiful oracle decks, and the latest to come my way is Caryn Sangster's Chakra Insight Oracle.

 Caryn has designed the deck and written the accompanying guidebook (which is included) and the cards have been sumptuously and cleverly illustrated by Amy Edwards.

I was immediately drawn into the deck when I shuffled it and made my first selection - it was "The Mind," exquisitely evoked with an indigo nexus spinning at the centre of a beautiful woman's forehead.

There couldn't be a more perfect card for me at this moment in time, when I am finishing my doctoral dissertation and about to embark on my second book. My mind is quite treasured at the present, and the Chakra Insight Oracle was speaking to me directly and powerfully right from the first touch.
Caryn is a healer, a social worker and a metaphysician with a solid grounding in Eastern healing techniques and systems of energetic healing. It is this varied and deeply spiritual background  that informs the philosophy and meaning behind these cards, which are designed to be used as daily or occasional prompts to facilitate healing, energise the day or provide some kind of subtle spiritual guidance.

They really represent an intense and nuanced journey through the subtle energetic field that metaphysicians say courses through and around our body and is most apparent to us through the chakras, the real framework of this deck. The chakras are, of course, an ancient Indian spiritual idea about the varied and gradual energies that are supported in different areas of our bodies. The Chakra Insight Oracle exends this ancient idea immediately into the present with its simply divine illustrations and the stories and messages of each card set out in the guidebook.   
And what does the guidebook say about my own, most special card, No. 38, The Mind? Amongst two pages of stimulating ideas and challenges one is reminded to: "Train your mind to focus on the positive aspects of life and to remain open to new concepts and ideas." The perfect advice for me, I think, at this pivotal moment on my life's journey.
If you've ever heard about the chakras or you are familiar with their system and wanted to deepen your understanding, you really must get this wonderful new deck.
It is a glorious gift, too, for anyone interested in alternative healing, psychology and spiritual development.
I am taking my Chakra Insight Oracle abroad with me to provide guidance on my travels and new ways to examine my days. I think you will find it equally stimulating and helpful on your own pilgrimage through life.

**** Five stars!

Chakra Insight Oracle is written and created by Caryn Sangster, illustrated by Amy Edwards.
It is published by Blue Angel Publishing and is available in book, gift and New Age stores.
You can purchase it on-line here.

5 Ordinary Courtesies

It is no secret that I am a fan of Stephanie Dowrick's work, and recently I went to hear her speak at Shearer's Bookshop in Leichhardt. She spoke in an excited and inspired way about how she has written her new book, Everyday Kindness, in reaction to a mood she has detected in our culture of wanting more kindness in our everyday lives.

There seems to be an ache for a re-awareness of the importance of simple respect and what Stephanie calls "ordinary courtesies." So often we are caught up in the "big picture," in advancing our own cause (be it personal, social or political), that we forget the most fundamental aspect of peace and understanding: the everyday acknowledgement of the fundamental humanity of each and every person we encounter. So here is a list of 5 "ordinary courtesies," inspired largely by Stephanie Dowrick's words and books, but with some of my own input as well. 

  1. Buy and read the books that you hope will inspire you - Too often we are passive viewers of cultural change. We sit back and comment, for example, on the demise of the local bookshops, remembering the happy days of browsing in our youth, and we forget that if we actually got up and visited them and became regular customers we could save the very things we worry will disappear. The same goes for movies, theatre, art, spirituality...If we want a vibrant local culture the responsibility for its long-term survival lies with us. Stephanie envisages a community of "reading activists" who advocate for books, authors and writing. You can become an activist for anything, just become involved, engaged and enthusiastic about something you love. 
  2. Use Facebook as a positive form of communication - The social media bully has become an all-too-common phenomenon, and many of us have suffered at their hands. There is little we can do about trolls, but there is plenty we can do about our own behaviour on-line. Never, ever, say anything on-line that you wouldn't say directly to someone's face. Remember that you are still dealing with human beings who have feelings and sensitivities and communicate accordingly. Even more importantly, use your Facebook and Twitter interactions for active good. Use your words to build someone up, to encourage people and praise them for their goodness and hard work. Spread good news and encourage others to do the same. See how good a friend you can actually be on-line, and most of all always write with kindness, respect and tolerance. 
  3. Establish a network of substance - Stephanie Dowrick has, for many years, built up her Universal Heart Network, a large virtual community of like-minded people who share news, events and the seasons together, either in person at Stephanie's events, or on-line through various social media. Now most of us aren't famous authors with incredible networks of thousands of people. But we are capable of establishing and being responsible for the maintenance of our own small networks that spread love, encouragement and support among members. It doesn't have to be formal - it could be simple email list of five or six friends, but it should be active and alert to needs, hopes and possibilities that exist for all of us. 
  4. Encourage and appreciate others - If you are anything like me you might feel embarrassed to openly encourage another person, or to thank them profusely for some good deed they have done. Australians are culturally awkward about such things, we see them as unnecessary palaver that might mark us out as insincere or as grovellers. But the truth is that most people are desperate for exactly this kind of feedback, and receive it with great satisfaction and warmth of feeling. I have for many years made it a personal policy to express my thanks directly to people whenever I can, and I am constantly taken aback by how surprised and moved the recipients are. It is not uncommon for a person to organise an event for 1,000 people and not receive a single thank you for their hard work. Overcome your shyness and your misgivings and tell people how wonderful they are and how much they inspire you and others. It is an immensely powerful act. 
  5. Remember to be kind towards those we love the best - I hold my hand up here - the person I am most likely to be grumpy and short with is my beloved partner of 22 years. The person who has shown me the greatest kindness, patience and sympathy is the one most likely to feel the brunt of my unhappiness and frustration. I am not proud of this fact, and it is something I have been working on fixing for a number of years. But dare I suggest I am not alone? How often do we show the worst parts of ourselves to our partners, our parents, our children and our oldest friends? We excuse it, thinking "they love us no matter what" and we go on to dazzle and charm total strangers with our loveliness and good manners. Just try for one night treating the person you love most as a total stranger, and notice how much more kind and considerate your words and actions become.

Stephanie Dowrick's latest book Everyday Kindness was released in December by Allen & Unwin and is available at all booksellers. 
Stephanie leads monthly Interfaith Services at Pitt St. Uniting Church in the Sydney CBD.
She will be leading an Easter retreat in New Zealand this year - more details here.
You can sign up for Stephanie's Universal Heart Network here.

Arts of Pacific Asia Show, San Fancisco - Guest Post by May-lee Chai

Guest Blog by May-lee Chai

            After Walter asked me if I’d contribute a guest blog, I went in search of something wonderful to write about for him and found the amazing Arts of Pacific AsiaShow here in San Francisco!

            The annual San Francisco Arts of Pacific Asia Show is really spectacular, featuring exhibits from more than 75 art galleries from around the world and the San Francisco Bay area. I felt quite posh to be rubbing shoulders with the usual crowd of collectors and art aficionados. (The media rep for the show, Agnes Gomes-Koizumi, told me the shows have been attracting investors from around the world, especially China. At the organizers’ ceramics show, a Chinese collector shocked everyone when he pulled $430,000 cash out of his knapsack to make a purchase. “China is a new monetary market,” Agnes said with great understatement. Alas, I’m afraid people were much less impressed when I was only able to pull my little digital camera out of my handbag.)

            This year’s show was the first ever to feature contemporary Asian art as well as the usual displays of Asian antiquities. And while I like to look at centuries-old textiles, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan rugs, tomb figures, and all the other fascinating artifacts as much as the next person, I must admit it was the contemporary art that caught my eye.

            First off it was impossible to miss the giant red, steel-and-fiberglass sculpture of a fortune cookie that loomed in the center of the hangar-like Fort Mason CenterPavilion. The shiny fortune cookie by artist Brian Zheng of Guangzhou, China, reminded me of the tricked-out Corvette you might find in the center of a fancy car show, and the $1,000,000 price tag suggested the recession isn’t hitting everyone equally!

            The contemporary art show was co-sponsored by the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), which is the oldest national organization in the U.S. dedicated to promoting the visibility of Asian American women artists.

            “The organizers wanted us to bring in new people, a younger audience,”  AAWAA representative Khay Hembrador told me. “People are really surprised to see the political art. We’ve got the slave girl pillows out front!”


            San Francisco-based artist Cynthia Tom’s “Chinese Slave Girl Pillows” were arresting and impossible to forget as they lay nestled together in a bamboo basket, the slave girl’s face peering out poignantly from within.

            Cynthia told me she printed an early 20th century photograph of a Chinese girl working behind barred windows in San Francisco’s Chinatown on fabric, which she then hand-sewed into little pillows. “I want people to nurture the girl, pat her pillow, treasure her, take care of her,” Cynthia said, so that the slave girl’s spirit would be cared for in a way she never was in life. 
            Several of Cynthia’s acrylic paintings were also on display, including my favorite, the delightful and mysterious, “Cloud Walkers.”

            Another favorite was artist Shari Arai DeBoer’s “Science Tarot Cards.”

            Shari was one of five artists invited to contribute designs—she created the watercolor/etchings for the Suit of Swords, which in this deck illustrates findings in physics and math. The cards are sold at the California Academy of Sciences, online (Amazon) and at various fairs in San Francisco, where they have delighted both the spiritual adventurers and Silicon Valley elements in the city. “The techies were so excited,” Shari said. “It combines both their interests!”

Artists (l-r) Cynthia Tom and Shari Arai DeBoer

            Shari is a trained architect whose refined artwork featuring etching, photo-etching, and watercolor is exhibited throughout the city.

            Artist Xiaojie Zheng’s paintings perhaps most personified the themes of the Arts of Pacific Show as she combines both traditional Asian art motifs with distinctively contemporary images. Xiaojie studied art formally in college in China before moving to Holland to study art on a scholarship. In 1999 she moved to the San Francisco Bay area where she has been working ever since.

In her acrylic painting, “Reconciliation,” Xiaojie portrays herself as modern-day Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, wearing a yoga tanktop as she perches on a lotus while clutching the many tools needed to complete the tasks in her daily life: a cell phone, rolling pin, paintbrush, shopping bag, photo of her children, etc.

            “We’ve had a great response to the art,” Xiaojie said. “People are kind of surprised to see us. We are not Asian artists, we are not [strictly] American artists, we are in-between. We are Asian American artists.”

            Readers who are interested in seeing more work by AAWAA artists can check out their website:

            The Arts of Pacific Asia Show has two annual shows, in San Francisco and in New York City. The public is welcome to attend. For future dates, check their website:

            Guest blogger May-lee Chai is a writer based in San Francisco. Her books include the novel Dragon Chica, the nonfiction book China A to Z, and the family memoir The Girl from Purple Mountain. You can check out her blog at

Tennessee: Cry of the Heart by Dotson Rader

I have always been moderately obsessed with Tennessee Williams. When I was 14 or so I heard or read somewhere that Williams' great plays contained subtle homosexual  hemes, so I went straight down to my country-town library and borrowed an enormous pink edition of the Collected Plays. I don't know what the librarians must have thought - they could probably see right through me.

So I sat down and carefully and with great seriousness read my way through them. In all honesty my level of sophistication was not sufficient for me to be able to detect all of the sublimated homosexuality that the plays were said to contain, but I realised instantly that they were rollicking good yarns and, had I been aware of the term, I would have identified them as camp.
That same year I managed to catch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on television. I enjoyed it immensely, but again most of it went over my head. I was more interested in the avuncular presence of Burl Ives, a man I'd previously only known as a singer, a great favourite of my beloved grandmother's.
My passion for all things Williams has remained, though this remarkable memoir tells me that at the stage that I initially became interested in him (the mid 80s) he was distinctly unfashionable and seen to be a quaint reminder of America's theatrical past. I have always maintained my conviction that he is a genius, and from what I can gather his star is on  the ascendant once more.
Tennessee: Cry of the Heart is a brutally intimate memoir of a lifelong friendship with the great playwright. Dotson Rader met Williams when he was in middle-age, a sick, bloated has-been who was an alcoholic and addicted to several different prescription drugs. Rader paints a picture of a desperately lonely man who had managed to push away almost everyone he was close to, leaving him with a senile mother who believed a horse lived in her bedroom and a mentally disabled sister who had been lobotomised when she proved too rebellious as a young woman.
Rader charts the end of Williams' life here with a fabulous honesty and an eye for scandal, sex and anecdote that kept me immersed in my reading when I should have been doing other things. His obvious love for the great American playwright doesn't stop him from cataloguing his foibles, his annoying paranoias and his occasional callousness in the face of friendship and even love.
The great love of Williams' life was the Italian American Frank Merlo. He lived with Williams as his companion for 16 years, and Williams called him "my little horse" for his elongated, toothy face and, as Rader so archly points out, "one other reason." Despite his loyalty and care, Williams treated Merlo with great cruelty at the end of his life, banishing his dying lover to suffer cancer all alone and not even going to his funeral.
A small and filthy house in Key West was the home base for the perpetually travelling Williams, and Rader himself lived there and visited there over a period of twenty years. The stories of Williams' perilous existence as an open queer in a horribly homophobic age do quite a bit to restore the reader's faith in his moral courage. When a New Orleans hotel refused to allow Williams and Merlo to stay in a room with a double bed Williams caused a huge scene, shrieking at the manager and demanding that they be given the room they wished. When the manager asked why on earth two men would want to sleep together in a double bed Williams, probably drunk and stoned, gave his most imperious glare and shouted: "Why, to fuck, of course!" After that he flounced out of the hotel and never once stayed there again, making sure all of his famous friends avoided it as well.
How Williams managed to live to the grand old age that he did is something of a miracle. Rader describes his decades-old morning routine:

"He arose early and made himself a martini, ordered a pot of coffee, and with a bottle of red wine in hand toddled into the living room and sat down at his portable typewriter...and worked until noon. Then he went to lunch and later took a swim. He maintained the same schedule until he died."

This is very much a queer memoir, and must have been quite scandalous when it came out (in 1985). Rader was by then a big-time journalist, but he is equally frank in this book about his own involvement in events - the drink, the drugs, the hustlers and general debauchery. In its candor it is ultimately affectionate and Williams is rendered, not as a great man of letters, but as a vulnerable, sensitive soul who craved approval and battled with the most enormous demons throughout his life.
Tennessee: Cry of the Heart is out of print these days, but easily available second-hand on-line. Do get a copy. 

Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong

Last weekend I went to the open day of the newly created Nan Tien Institute in Wollongong, just outside of Sydney.
This is a fully accredited tertiary institution specialising in Buddhist studies. At the moment classes are being conducted on the spacious and exquisite grounds of the Nan Tien temple itself, but they are about to begin building a $40 million campus that will offer degrees in Buddhist studies.

Outside the Kwan Yin Shrine

The whole project makes me ache to be an undergraduate again - surely there is no more beautiful, peaceful and unique campus in Australia.

I have been a regular visitor to Nan Tien temple since it first opened way back in 1995 - indeed, I remember making my own humble contribution to the building project while it was still going on.


It is the most wonderful place to visit - a perfect day trip from Sydney. And I love the way it hovers on the precipice between ultimate multicultural exoticism and suburban monument - there are an extraordinary number of vistors over the weekend who I would describe as "ordinary Australians," in shorts and t-shirts taking in the sights. It's quite lovely to witness this meeting of worlds.

Statue of Kwan Yin in the temple gardens

Salvation Boulevard

 Salvation Boulevard is, perhaps, the most peculiar movie about religion that I have ever seen. And it is its peculiarity that makes it work, as satire, as social commentary and, ultimately, as a genuine and thoughtful meditation on what it is to be religious and what it is that religion brings to people.
The film takes several tropes of contemporary religion - the entrepreunerial megachurch pastor (played by Pierce Brosnan), the celebrity atheist - and mixes them with some things less recognisable to a mainstream audience, but still very much a part of the 21st century religious scene.

These elements include a doubting boomer-convert who was once a Deadhead, a cowered Christian teenager press-ganged into chastity balls and Hell Night theatre reviews and drifting, at-peace potheads who, it seems, have a better grasp of life than those more adamant about their spiritual "peace." Director George Ratliff seems to be genuinely interested in what it is that makes people embrace religious faith, and he expresses this in a manner that is at the same time very funny and quite subtly sophisticated.
Ratliff has previously directed a documentary on the Hell House theatrical phenomenon of born-again teenagers producing violent and dark plays in which people are tormented by their sins in all kinds of sadistic and sado-sexual ways. There is one, brief reference in Salvation Boulevard to this genre, when two characters, fleeing through the various sections of a mega-church mall, stumble upon the rehearsal space of as a group of teens who are practising torturing someone who has procured an abortion.
What I loved about the film (and I don't want to give too much of its plot away here) is the way it looks at the faithful and their reasons for belonging. The film's protaganist, the hapless reformed stoner Carl Vanderveer (played by Greg Kinnear with much smirking charm), admits on several occasions that he has stumbled into Christianity and has stayed more out of a sense of comfort and community than any great theological revelation. Instead it is his more aggressively testimonial wife (played brilliantly and quite unglamorously by Jennifer Connelly) who demands a public display of faith, all the while sailing close to hysteria.
It is interesting, too, in its effortless inclusion of technology into its plotline. This is one of the first movies I have seen in which mobile phones play an essential part in the plot. Indeed, they take on their own spiritual significance, with Pierce Brosnan's evil pastor being haunted by a vibrating red iPhone whose ominous "Unknown Caller" he inerprets as the modern face of Satan himself.
This is a funny and at times slight film, but it's well worth seeing if you have an interest in contemporary spirituality and the ways in which it is represented in contemporary culture.

**** Four Stars (out of five)

Salvation Boulevard is a February DVD release, distributed in Australia by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Shrines in the Taoist Hall, Mingyue Temple

A blog reader asked me about the statue on the main shrine of the Taoist Hall at Mingyue Temple in Bonnyrigg, Sydney. I promised I would take some more photographs of the interior so that people can see the deities.

The central figure in the shrine is Laozi, the founder of Taoism and the man who wrote the Taoist text the Tao Te Ching.

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