URTHONA Buddhist arts journal covers all aspects of contemporary and traditional arts from a Western Buddhist perspective. It is published annually in a high quality, 68 page,  glossy magazine format, and is beautifully designed.

To subscribe to the current issue, or purchase back issues go to the URTHONA SHOP page above.

This site contains selected essays and material from back issues. See page listings to right.

Urthona – the landscape: Our guardian spirits are the romantic and revolutionary writers of early 19th century London – Blake, Hazlitt and Coleridge – and the Zen poets of Japan who were similarly drawn to the open, outer reaches of mind and culture.  Our founding inspiration came from the Western Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita who has always seen the arts as a key means of spiritual transformation in the contemporary world. Here you will find essays on the arts as a means of rousing the imagination and communicating a sense of the sacred in ways that are relevant to the 21st century. More about our vision in ABOUT URTHONA above.

Scroll down this page for URTHONA editor’s blog: in depth and  insightful commentary on art, life and culture.

For shorter, more personal posts on art, life and everything see editor’s Facebook Page – like or become friends!

Issue 31 Cover

Issue 31 Cover

CURRENT ISSUE NO 31: The Art and Craft of Story Telling. Explore what this most ancient and fundamental art means to us now.

To buy your copy go to URTHONA SHOP page.

Explore some of the master narratives of European culture in fresh, insightful ways. Here you will find an interview with one of our master storytellers Kevin Crossley Holland, a piece on one of the most important stories in Western culture, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and an account of the story behind Jung’s Red Book by the acclaimed writer on art, education and imagination, Peter Abbs; also an introduction to the greatest story ever told Homer’s Iliad – an introduction to the greatest story ever told – homers Iliad and in-depth article by Dharmavadana.

PROTASIS: The Cosmic Goddess


An extract from the editorial for issue 32, due out November 2015, on the cosmic goddess

I believe that the modern goddess image is not primarily a figure to be worshipped, but a symbol that embodies a vision of the entire cosmos that is deeply, desperately needed in this age. In turning our hearts to the goddess, we are turning towards a sacred cosmos, in which each object and event is intimately connected to an interwoven Whole. This interwovenness, or interconnectedness, or ‘interbeing’ as Zen Master Tich Nat Hanh styles it, is a vision of life that in past ages was felt and known ‘in the blood’ without needing to be articulated. But it is a vision that, since the Renaissance, western culture has gradually, and disastrously, lost touch with. And, of course, before the modern era in the West, the sacred cosmos was seen as essentially theocentric. So in these times there is a deeply felt need to turn back to that living interwoven cosmos, but also, for many, to revision the universe in a way that is luminously sacred but not theocentric, not created by a ruling God. In doing this many people have received inspiration from Mahayana Buddhism, especially perhaps the Chinese Hwa Yen tradition, based on the Avatamsaka sutra. The Hwa Yen makes it clear that the interwoven Whole which is implicated in every discreet phenomenon is none other than the totality of the conditioned arising taught by the Buddha, seen via a visionary synthesis rather than the more usual ‘via negativa’ of eradicating the illusion of a fixed self. To know the conditioned in this way is simultaneously to know the unconditioned. But equally, in developing this new/old sacred world view, a revisioning of the pagan pre-Christian traditions of the West has been important to many. And this is where the goddess comes in.

Imagine a universe in which each event, each thought, each object is intimately related in a web or matrix of connections to every other phenomenon; in which consciousness in its absolute dimension, not bound by time or space, the deepest level of our human values, is seen as implicated in the being of all material things. One might picture such a cosmos as a vast, luminous shimmering web, or a network of living jewels or mirrors, reflecting both the superabundance of organic life and the most fertile dimensions of human wisdom. This, I believe, is what people are turning to in their hearts when they become fascinated with the goddess image. Furthermore, as the  celebrated wrier about the goddess, Anne Baring explains in Urthona 32, feminine images have come to the fore because it is an overvaluing of certain qualities of analytical thought, traditionally seen as masculine, that has led us away from this image. We now need not just a science of ecology applied to the biological world, but an ecological vision applied to the entire cosmos, one which transcends the distinction between the sciences and the humanities. The patroness or guardian of this ecological vision is the all powerful goddess of life, fertility and nature mysteries in her many guises.

Different people, of course, have turned to different to traditional images as best embodying this ecological vision. As we explore in this issue both Isis and Hekate from the Mediterranean world have much to offer. Buddhists may turn to these figures, or Celtic goddesses and make them their own. Or they might choose to focus on figures from the East such as the female Bodhisattva Tara, much beloved in Tibet. And from China, Kwan Yin, enlightened Lady of compassion and succour for the afflicted, is a very attractive archetypal figure. Jan Osborne has written for us a fascinating and sensitive study about her many attributes.  Watch this space for news of publication…

Urthona Issue 32 gathering pace….

The goddess Artemis

The goddess Artemis

Things are well underway on gathering material for issue 32, and I have even designed the first two articles.

The theme is GODDESSES EAST AND WEST, and we have loads of exciting material:

* A major article by Anne Baring (co-author of The Myth of the Goddess) in which she traces the evolution of images of the divine feminine throughout the ages. It is a call to awaken the imagination, to restore and reinvent a vision of a sacred cosmos.

* Our movie expert Ed Piercy on two Hollywood

images of the archetypal feminine: Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy

* Jan Osborne writes about Kwan Yin.

* Dharmavadana celebrates Homer’s Odyssey including the hero’s encounters with those two dangerous goddess figures Circe and Calypso.

* Sue Bonnett writes about the abstract painter Agnes Martin who has a major exhibition at Tate Gallery.

Urthona now has a Facebook page


You can now follow Urthona on Facebook. This page, which is the editor’s personal page, will contain short topical reflections about art, life and everything, as well as news of the magazine.

Please note:  the views expressed will be the editor’s personal views and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editorial team.

Click on the link at top right of our home page. Enjoy, and follow us if you wish to….

The imaginative stimulus of ignorance….

What does it mean?

What does it mean

I have this alchemical symbol on my wall so I can see it when I meditate. I must admit this is more inspiring to me than most Buddha images would be. I have no idea what it means but that is part of the attraction. I am reminded of that old romantic idea that landscapes are more meaningful when half hidden by mist, something about giving space for the imagination to play in the gap of the unknown.

Of course poetry is often like this. When reading Geoffrey Hill, for example, rarely do I fully apprehend a definite meaning, but each of his lines is wonderfully evocative and pregnant with possible meanings….

“To mourn is to mourn; the ancient words suffice, / Latin or English, worn channels for the rain / charged and electric….”

This poem, from Without Title, is called – ‘To John Constable: In Absentia’, but who knows what relationship it has with Constable’s life…. and who care – wonderful, weighted words about grief and the need for rituals of mourning…. the doctrines of, presumably, the Latin Mass, or the Anglican Book of Common Prayer are not the point, it is the way the sound of the words falls charged into the soul….

Just posted new essay on Buddhism and the rebirth of a culture of beauty.

The face I had before the world was made: Why art, Buddhism and beauty go hand in hand – a major new essay which sets out the values behind Urthona journal of Buddhism and the Arts, a journey in the company of James Hillman, Sangharakshita and W. B. Yeats by Urthona editor, Ratnagarbha.

Ratnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson) editor of Urthona

The first book to be written from a Western perspective on the subject of Buddhism and the arts was Art and Meditation, by the well known German devotee of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Govinda, and originally published in 1936. In this he says:

Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind. Both are nourished by the same source, but it may seem that they are moving in different directions: art towards the realm of sense-impressions, meditation towards the overcoming of forms and sense-impressions. But the difference pertains only to accidentals, not to the essentials.1

So, appreciating or creating art is a way of working on the mind, of cultivating more insightful, expansive and grounded states of consciousness. Meditation, one might say, is the royal road to higher states of being, the mind working directly on the mind. But the arts present a very attractive, engaging means, a tool to work on our mental states by means of impressions ‘out the there’ in the world of the senses; that world to which we are all so attached, so ‘hooked up’. By means of the arts we use this attraction outwards to draw us into a world of meaningfully arranged forms, a world of beauty and significance, which partakes equally of the inner and outer life, and reminds us of who we truly are. This simultaneous movement: towards external sense impressions imbued with a sense of inner purpose and significance is precisely what the arts can do at their best….

Read the rest of the essay on our Culture and Society pages:

What the Silence Meant – Poems and Music that Celebrate Stillness and Listening

The cover of Meg Hutchinson's new album 'Beyond That'. Available from www.meghutchinson.com

The cover of Meg Hutchinson’s new album ‘Beyond That’. Available from http://www.meghutchinson.com

Simon Millward looks at a new book of poems ‘in conversation’ with the late, great American poet William Stafford, and the music of Meg Hutchinson. Both of these artists show a strong feeling for silence and the value of listening…

In the last issue of Urthona there was an article entitled ‘Hearing the wilderness listen’, taken from an essay written by Manjusvara that looked closely at William Stafford’s poem ‘Travelling through the dark’. It is strange how things can interconnect unexpectedly. I read this article again at a time when I had become increasingly interested in the albums of an American folk singer songwriter Meg Hutchinson. On her website I discovered that she also loved poetry, quoting William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Yeats and Frost among her influences, as well as Greg Brown and Joni Mitchell on the music side. Moreover she had just had her first poem accepted for publication in an anthology: A Ritual to read together: poems in conversation with William Stafford. This book was to coincide with and celebrate the centenary of Stafford’s birth in 2014. At the same time Ask me: 100 essential poems, by Stafford himself, was being published.

As some readers will know Manjusvara was a friend of Stafford and regarded him as his mentor.( He also published him in England through his own Weatherlight press at a time when Stafford’s work was not readily available in this country.) What became clear on reading the introduction to A Ritual by his son Kim Stafford and Fred Marchant was that many others similarly held Willliam Stafford as a mentor, and that his example and teaching – the values which he embodied – were as important as, and indivisible from, the poems themselves.

As Kim Stafford and Fred Marchant say in the introduction: ‘One could think of this collection as a multi-faceted letter to William Stafford some twenty years after his death. It’s a letter that tells him not only how each poet is faring, but also how important Stafford’s writing, ideas, and teaching continue to be. For those who were his friends, it also registers how much his personal presence is missed. But this collection is neither elaborated elegy nor mere hagiography. What Becca J.R. Lachman has done as editor is bring together a set of contemporary poets whose work is ‘in conversation’ with William Stafford. Sometimes the conversation occurs as direct address, other times as vivid recollection, and yet other times as dream vision or ghostly visitation. Some of the poems launch forth from a Stafford line or two, while others pause to reflect upon some aspect of Stafford’s life. However, many of the poems make no direct reference to Stafford’s life or writing. Instead, they offer us an indirect conversation, often a meditation on some dimension of contemporary life that Stafford himself would have wanted to know of and hear about.’

The editor Becca Lachman has divided the poems into three sections, the first responding to Stafford’s use of place both as location and as an in a larger community. The second considers the many layers of peacemaking and violence, within ourselves and in our world, while the final section dialogues with Stafford’s philosophy on the writing life and teaching writing. She acknowledges that some poems span all three.

On reading this collection it is immediately striking how the poems capture the spirit of William Stafford, none more so than those by Robert Bly and Naomi Shihab Nye, who both make warm and humorous contributions. Apart from these two, most of the contributors will probably not be familiar names to English readers, so a bonus is an introduction to some new poets. What is also striking is how fresh, life affirming and diverse the poems are. Certain themes emerge however, one of which is listening. Kim Stafford says in the introduction, ‘The stance of listening carefully to what the world is whispering is an archetypal Stafford stance and engaging in that or a similar kind of listening is one fundamental way these poets are in conversation with him.’ No Stafford poem illustrates this stance better than the enigmatic ‘Ask me’ which embodies the importance of listening on both a personal and universal level.

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.

Meaningful conversation inevitably involves good listening so in a sense listening in varying degrees is common to all the poems in A Ritual. Joel Peckham’s ‘The noise we make’ triggered by Stafford’s line ‘that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone’ from ‘Assurance’ opens with:

We have to learn again to listen

to silences.

Some poems refer like this to listening specifically e.g. Fred Marchant’s evocative ‘Call to Prayer’ and Jim Daniel’s ‘Bare Spots’ and many others clearly imply listening e.g. William Sheldon’s ‘Hearing the river’:

Sometimes we wake

in the dark

and know the churning

that would free us

from doubt’s eddy,

a voice saying

‘It’s 4 a.m. Swim’.

Another theme emerging through the collection is that of transformation, sometimes striking and arresting, as in David Shumate’s prose poem ‘Bringing things back from the woods’ when the objects take on a new life ‘one of our oldest chairs is growing back its bark. A beam…. has sprouted a dozen leaves’, or more subtly in Joseph Hutchison’s mysterious ‘The Map’ (‘moon’ apparently was the first word Stafford uttered)

Again tonight your words

have come, simple as deer.

And now your moon, snowball

flung by a boy on the last clear

day of his childhood, melts

into paths under my eyelids,

filling those animal tracks

with cold light. I follow

that map, make my way deep

Into the forest… until a house


built of pine shadows appears,

a blood-red door, a paned

window where an old woman

leans, dry lips pursed – my name

blooming briefly on the glass.

Folk singer/songwriter Meg Hutchinson grew up in the Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts where she wandered as a child and found inspiration in the hills, rivers and woods there. Whilst the focus in this review is on her recent album Beyond that, which came out towards the end of 2103, it is worth returning first to her two previous albums Come up full and The Living Side, because there are clear references in the songs to some difficult years living with mental illness for which she had hospital treatment. In ‘Home’ she refers to ‘brave souls shuffling up and down the halls, no one visits no one even calls’, and includes lines such as ‘it’s possible to go so far down, I’m just glad they found a cure’, and the ‘dark night of the soul is real’. One of the recurring themes in the first two albums is of the highs and lows, of burning too bright then going dark, but ultimately finding herself again. Her lyrics and haunting melodies somehow seem to make the personal universal and also allow other people’s stories to come alive.

The optimism returns in ‘Full of light’: ‘I’m ready for something bigger than me’ with the chorus taken from the Rumi poem ‘Search the darkness’: ‘search the darkness don’t run from it, the night traveller is full of light.’ And this song seems like the precursor for what follows on Beyond that so it is perhaps significant that the title track opens with ‘Don’t let the darkness in – I’m already beyond that.’ She has moved on, yet it’s also as if she’s reminding herself not to go back. Meg’s songs require repeated listening – they are intimate low key affairs, emotionally honest, reflecting the struggles of her personal life but on Beyond that it is immediately clear there has been a significant shift, that this is an album about transformation. It could be called a song cycle in that the songs seem to evolve and flow into each other seamlessly, the end of each track almost unnoticeable. There is a new found serenity throughout, in ‘Nowhere’, ‘I used to own a lot of words, I used to talk all day but the more peace I find the less I have to say’ and evidence of moving beyond craving ‘my loves are many, my needs are few’ in ‘Only just begun.’ Musically there is also a shift from playing guitar, as on her previous albums, to the piano which she has relearnt. There is also her regular trio of musicians including ever present producer Crit Harmon, never intrusive but sensitively enhancing the voice and lyrics so they remain the focus of attention.

Referring to her childhood Meg says ‘growing up without a TV or internet there were so many quiet hours in a day, so many spaces between events. We have forgotten how to be alone in our thoughts. All the best work comes out of that rich stillness of waiting.’ This is exemplified in the exquisite ‘Let’s go’: ‘let’s go out to the back porch when the evening’s over – wait for Orion to rise above the cedars – in the middle of nowhere far from the town – I’ve never felt more found, more found than now.’ There is sense of wonder in the simple beauty of gathering stones from the almost frozen lake and dragging a tree home behind us. This is also a song about coming home not only in terms of her new family, but also on a higher spiritual level. Several of the songs could be addressed both to a personal lover and a spiritual teacher. Coming home, transforming desire, these themes are ever present through this song cycle. The meditative, sometimes ecstatic, quality reflects the fact that not only does Meg work in the field of mental health advocacy but has now studied and practises meditation and yoga. Her interests lie in bringing these together through her own creativity as a way of finding inner peace and freedom. Hence the lines in ‘Safe’:

all of this treasure….I gave it all away, that’s how I got free

May this human love throw open a door

to a greater love than I’ve ever known before and ending

but let my heart keep bursting.

The cycle concludes with the reflective ‘Everything more beautiful the quieter I become’ in praise of the miracle of life and an Epilogue: ‘Paradiso, the lyric’, adapted from the third and final part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine comedy.

This is a wonderful celebratory album which shows the journey of recovery and of listening is a never ending one. As in William Stafford’s poems and those written in conversation with him, listening is at the centre, the key to opening up. The digital age means more and more input in our lives and requires ever speedier responses to things. We need to slow down, wait and listen, whether it be to the wilderness or the river, the darkness, the spaces in between, our inner voice or to the silence within.

Simon Millward has been involved in writing and publishing poetry for many years. He is now enjoying rural life in North Devon where he writes and teaches meditation.

More on Meg Hutchinson’s Music at www.meghutchinson.com

Discipleship – an idea worth ressurecting?

The dictionary says that a disciple is ‘the follower of the doctrines of a teacher or school of thought’. But this doesn’t really convey the experiential flavour of that ancient institution. In days gone by, when you took up a trade or a course of study in guild, church or university, you were apprenticed to a master. You followed their teaching in craft, curriculum or philosophy closely. No doubt you were aware that as a human being they were far from perfect, but you knew that your future success in life depended on learning as much from the master as possible in a very broad sense. This aspect of education and human development is something we have largely lost in the modern world. In the Buddhist movement I am part of we are taking some steps to reinstate this ancient tradition, in ways that suit these times. I think we have a long way to go. Not everyone likes the idea. This may be because the second, religious, meaning of the word ‘a follower of Christ’ has been widely used by analogy in our times to apply to the often gullible devotees of eastern or new age gurus. This usage tends to imply a complete self surrender to the teacher on the part of the disciple. The result is that the more ‘secular’ meaning, of being a follower of someone’s teaching, which only implies a reasonable human respect for the teacher, has been drowned in the colourful, melodramatic history of religious and esoteric cults over the last hundred years or so. Think of the Golden Dawn, Madam Blavatsky, Rajneesh – all had their so called disciples – but how much did these followers really learn?

However, turning back much further we can remember that Socrates had disciples who learned nothing more than how little they truly knew. Plotinus, in careful, measured discourses, unlocked the secrets of the ascent of the soul to the absolute to his disciples in ancient Rome.This is true discipleship, much closer to the original pre-biblical meaning of the Latin term discipulus, which simply means a student of someone’s teaching. It can be used in the context of a particular discipline, or more broadly with regard to a teacher of the ‘art of life’. For if you realize you have more to learn, that your heart is not fully matured, then surely you will be a disciple of something or someone? In the sphere of the arts the term also gets used in that traditional but non-religious manner. For example: in saying that Yeats was a disciple of Pound I mean that he learned from him poetically (as did many poets of that generation) not that Yeats slavishly followed everything Pound did. Which is just as well in the circumstances. Yeats flirted a bit with far right fascist views but never joined up.In fact, the free thinking Yeats could never have been a disciple in the strongly religious sense – he didn’t last long as a follower of Madam Blavatsky – but there was much discipleship in his life, towards Plato and Plotinus, Keats and Shelley and, in an  esoteric/imaginative sense, towards the ‘sages in god’s holy fire’ of Byzantium itself.

Another important consideration is that discipleship is a heart-process of different levels. As a Buddhist my fundamental discipleship is towards the Buddha. But I may have a human Buddhist teacher, less fundamental but still important, who is my guide and interpreter of the Buddhist path. Likewise, in the field of poetry, I may look up to powerful exemplars like Yeats who embody the path of the poet, and then in my local class with the Poetry Society, have teachers who are closer to my level but still have much to teach.

Not that discipleship of any kind is likely to be plain sailing these days. Powerful forces of self defining individualism going back to the Reformation refuse to fit in with the idea of discipleship. So one becomes more aware of these forces if one tries to think in that way. Perhaps it would helpful to think in terms of a ‘spiritual apprenticeship’ to one’s chosen teacher. In any case, discipleship for us has to be an ongoing process, not a once for all signing up. And here again one can learn from the example of poetry. If I read a poet and find their vision of the world is compelling, well I am that poet’s disciple. I have learned something, modified who I am in some small but significant way.