SMALL BOAT, VAST OCEAN: My Years in Solitary Buddhist Retreat


Born in the wee hours of the morning, Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Midwife: Butter Lamp Press. Length: 302 pages
Author and book are resting nicely, awaiting welcoming
from friends and the wider community.

Sunrise on three-year retreat, sword of Manjushri
Photo credit: Diane Berger

It’s been a long gestation: first the retreat itself which began in 2011; then a second, shorter retreat which ended in fall of 2016. At that point I began considering bringing a memoir out into the world, and later the work began in earnest. In those six years there were two when I didn’t work on it at all. And now, after concerted effort and with help from friends, ta da! it’s ready for reading.

In the world of book writing, I’ve been told it’s not such a long time, but I know many people have been waiting. So I thank you for your patience. The three-year retreat was truly a group effort, as some friends know firsthand, and so in some ways, this book is a thank you present. I hope very much that you find it worthwhile and engaging, even inspiring.


The book can be purchased in two ways: through Amazon and bookstores. As much as Amazon is convenient, I’m hoping many will opt to request it at local bookstores. To encourage that, there’s a button on my new book website that takes the viewer to the book’s page on Indiebound where local bookstores are listed…which can then be clicked on or the shop phoned up. That’s my sincere plug for bookstores. As far as the life of the book is concerned, it’s difficult to say which will help it more, so it’s up to you.


I hope you will also enjoy the new website, dedicated to the book: It has Endorsements, Excerpts, and Extras. The Extras page has some fun items, including a map and the original art for the book’s cover. Photos from retreat are sprinkled throughout the site. Endorsements come from Ken McLeod, Brian Hodel, and Lodro Rinzler. A review by Jude Rozhon shares that page, which was also published on NW Dharma’s blog.


Word-of-mouth may be the best way to help along the life of this book. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Let your friends or community know about the book. Forwarding the book’s website is one suggestion. Another is social media.
  • After you’ve read the book, post a review on its Amazon page.
  • Also after reading it, you’re welcome to send me a comment which may appear on the book’s website.


My wish for all of us is that our imaginations of what is possible
expand in such a clear picture with such confidence,
that the pathways open up,
and we’re drawn in, without effort,
like water mixing with water

~ written on retreat


Mandala: Visualizing the Spiritual Dimension

Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. The flat drawings that we normally see are meant as maps of the three-dimensional universe, or even multiverse, in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.

Mandalas have arisen in the world’s spiritual traditions, from the calendars of the Mayans to the Persian symbol of the sun, or the Celtic cross. In Christianity, they appear in walkable labyrinths, or stained glass windows of ancient cathedrals. Mandalas are found in nature: think of flowers, or the cross-section of a tree trunk, a conch shell, the iris of an eye, or a snowflake.

The earliest Buddhist mandalas appeared in India around 200 CE, and spread to other Asian countries, including Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism the Mandala represents the sacred essence of the universe, or the enlightened mind. It is an outward manifestation of inner spiritual dimensions, using color, form and sacred geometry. The Mandala is a tool through which philosophical and religious principles are passed from teacher to student over generations.

The Tibetan mandala is an exquisite form of ritual art. Every intricate detail carries deep symbolic meaning. The form often appears as concentric circles around a perfect square, representing a four-sided temple containing the essence of the Buddha or other deities. Each deity has a corresponding mandala constructed of specific shapes and colors. The Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara’s mandala, for example, appears differently from one for Manjushri, Buddha of Wisdom.

Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala, Bellingham, Washington, 2019

Each mandala detail represents precise parts of a palace, including cornices, columns, lintels, etc. The mandala is inhabited. At the center resides the main deity, and around the circular perimeter is a row of protector deities. The four sides have entranceways through which the deity is approached. The mandala is divided into four sections that correspond to the four directions, indicated by its characteristic color. The center makes a fifth direction. Blue in the east; yellow south; red west; green north; and white at the center. (Sometimes blue and white are switched.)

In contemplative meditation, the Mandala can serve to focus and calm the mind. At other times, practitioners may visualize the symbolic representation of the pure land of that deity, or pure essence of the enlightened mind. This is meant to cultivate one’s inner spiritual qualities and the potential to achieve an enlightened state.

Mandalas are created as offerings to bless and heal the world and all its inhabitants. They are also a profound teaching on impermanence—a central principle of Buddhist philosophy. Although some Mandala art is preserved in sacred paintings, practitioners create mandalas of sand and other materials that are then dissolved and returned to nature. From creation through dissolution, the Sand Mandala is a beautiful dance illustrating the impermanence of all things.

Thanks to Marcia Meyers for contributing to this piece, and to Brian Hodel for the title. Copies were handed out at the Kilung Foundation’s 2019 “Prayer for the Earth: Tibetan Sand Mandala Exhibit.”