tsatsas(& the art of improvised pilgrimage)      
sewanee, tn, october-november, 2011

Tsa-tsas are miniature versions of Buddhist stupas, or markers of sacred space.  In setting out 108 tsatsas around Sewanee, my collaborators and I are saying: mindful attention to small features of our shared landscape is a catalyst for experiencing sacred space, and – more radically – for causing it to occur. Passersby finding tsatsas are invited to keep them, pass them on to someone else, or leave them be.  All are also invited to post stories and photographs about their tsatsa encounters by following the links printed on the tsatsas’ tags.

This project is inspired by my pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and on Shikoku Island (Japan), and by the transformative experience of Buddhist mindfulness practice. There’s an old Zen story:

A teacher is dying, and a student despairs over this fact. The student asks what she can possibly do to honor the teacher. “Build me a seamless monument,” the teacher says.

Meaning: live in such a way that sacred and ordinary are one. Live in such a way that there are no unimportant places or people.

The Sewanee tsatsas are cast using a traditional Bhutanese brass mold, and made of clay dug up in Sewanee with the help of local ceramic artist Archie Stapleton.  I dedicate this project in gratitude to the entire Sewanee community.  May you be well. 


October 30th, 2011: First day of A Sewanee Pilgrimage

This afternoon was the organizational meeting for the Sewanee Pilgrimage project. Eighteen marvelous collaborators turned up. Have you ever had the experience of issuing an odd invitation and then having way more people respond than you have chairs for? I can highly recommend it, for morale & general faith in the universe. All 108 Sewanee tsatsas, except four that I plan to place myself, are out in the world... Hoorah & let the pilgrimaging begin.

Sewanee Team Tsatsa assembled in all its glory... Linda Heck, Stephen Alvarez, Jessica Wohl, Archie Stapleton, April Shi, Helen Stapleton, Lesley, Polly & Eric Thurman, Robley Hood, Sarah Butler, Isabel Butler, Christi Teasley, Jane Morgan, Andrew Daverman, Peter Trenchi, Ed Carlos, Julie Püttgen, and Kelly O'Mara.

Here's a first report, from the ever-industrious and marvelously well-spoken Robley Hood:

Dear Julie,

Thanks for letting me be part of this gift-giving/sacred space project.  If I had not found many Autumn Meadowhawks (unexpectedly) at Lake Cheston and if they had not all been mating (enthusiastically), I might have placed more than two tsatsas today.

Tsatsa 52 is below the rail at the beach end of Lake Cheston's metal bridge.  Here, I first started learning about dragonflies in the summer of 2010.  Harry Yeatman and I  happened to arrive in the parking lot at the same time, and he invited me to stroll with him.  On the bridge, we stopped so he could tell me about the flowers, but I couldn't stop watching the dragonflies and trying to photograph them.  Delighted and despite his amused laughter at my failed efforts, he started my odonata education.  This summer, I watched Blue Corporals emerge from their exuviae (their nymph exoskeletons) on the concrete pilings along the same bridge, and today, I watched Autumn Meadowhawks, the last of our dragonflies, mate in the same spot.  It's a magic place.

Tsatsa 80 is on the podium in Bairnwick House, home of the Sewanee Writers' Conference.  Bairnwick, named for the Scottish or Gaelic (I'm not sure which) word that means "house of children," was once a grammar school, whose head was Margaret Myers.  Some of her descendents still live here today.  Lucas and Dawa Myers recently moved to California, but Alex Hoole and her husband have a house here and their daughter Iska, whom you may know, and her child live here.  Many great writers have stood at that podium and created sacred space by reading their work.  I will always remember hearing Tim O'Brien read the last chapter of The Things They Carried, a great book that I have taught a number of times.  He wept through most of the chapter, as did those of us listening to him.  How fitting it is that writers who make the magic children fall in love with meet there every summer and weave their spells.  (For more about Bairnwick, follow this link.


PS Two of my other sacred spots already had tsatsas by the time I got there: Up-the-Down and Convocation Hall.  :-)


photograph by Robley Hood
photograph by Robley Hood
photograph by Robley Hood
photograph by Robley Hood

...And here are two photographs from Stephen Alvarez, who says, "This is at Elliot Point on the perimeter trail."


photograph by Stephen Alvarez
photograph by Stephen Alvarez
Two more entries for this beautiful first day: I placed the first one near the top of the climb down into Shakerag Hollow, in one of the honeycomb nooks in the rock. The second one went on the porch of the Sewanee Community Center, in concert with Helen Stapleton, as we arrived for her yoga class. [Scroll over for alternate views.]
photographs by Julie Püttgen
photographs by Julie Püttgen
Sewanee Pilgrimage project pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12