I have “downtime” project, it’s where I close the door on the world and just focus on something I care about it. If you don’t have a project like that, I suggest you get one. It’s going to be a turbulent couple months, and frankly 12 months. You want to come out alive and better or at least alive and sane on the other side.
I think about the 1920s, post the last pandemic, a lot. Mostly because that’s when a lot of housing developments happened here in Gran’s county. You can see lots of small homes, 750sq feet, on small lots, in the county seat from that period. I never understood why anyone would want such a postage stamp home on a postage stamp lot, till now. People wanted their own safe space to isolate in. However tiny.
I also never understood the “big eye” craze in make up then. I thought at first it was the Tut tomb discovery. Or the short hair bob. But now I realise, it was a legacy of masks. When only eyes were visible and long hair caught in mask strings. And too, I now understand why badminton, tennis, croquet, riding, hunting, fishing hiking, sailing, canoeing, and golf were so popular then too. All sports you could do outdoors, alone or socially distant.
I also understand now why people were so rampantly party going. And there was so much drinking and dancing and sex. Post-lockdown steam letting off. And I understand why there was such an uptick in travelling the country by auto and seeing national parks then. Outdoors, socially distant hangover. We see it now, people buying RVs.
I understand too how the government came to hand it’s role as protector of it’s people to capitalists, to gin up the economy, but ended up turning it over to people who would instead destroy it for personal gain. We see the head of this right now. Deregulation and anti-labor rulings in the name of “helping” the economy.
But that’s all in the future. Right now? I’m working on my pandemic project. I decided to re-create a very old Tibetan Buddhist thangka. A thangka is a religious, devotional painting typically used as a meditation aid.
Like most religious paraphernalia, including Catholic paraphernalia, what it means it depends on the person looking at it. Some people with limited knowledge (or “Dog’s Tooth” faith) would treat it like a god and pray to it. Nothing wrong with that. But to the versed practitioner, that’s not what they’re doing with it. And to an artist, it’s a thing of beauty.
There’s a lot of crossover between Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. In a way they’re yin and yang (sorry, a Daoism mention seemed appropriate here). Christians see life from God as primarily happiness with temporary periods of suffering, with a concrete reality and definite ending. Buddhists see the world as primarily suffering with temporary periods of happiness, an unending cycle of illusion (delusion?).
Most people think of mandalas when they think of Tibetan Buddhism, aka vajrayana Buddhism (the way you might call people Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox to distinguish them from other types of Christians.) Mandalas are typically round and appear in a square. Thangkas are typically rectangular.
You may have seen some monks make a sand mandala and then brush it away, destroy it. That’s a typical type of offering. As well as a teaching on impermanence. But there are mandala thangka paintings as well, used for meditational practices. They tend to be quite elaborate. This is a kalachakra mandala.
I’m not sure how long my project will take. I think if it were professionally done, it’d take a professional 2 months of 8-10 hr days. You can read about a professional thangka painter here. Because I’m doing it, and I don’t have days to devote to it, or the typical 6 years of training! to be professional thangka painter, I’ve really no idea how long this will take. I may have to leave it with Gran and coming back to it on my third tour of duty.
I’ll start with your first noble question: What is it you’re trying to re-create?
This is it above. This is why it’s a project. You can’t really restore a thangka. I mean you can, you could, but a major component idea of Buddhism is impermanence. So when a things fades away, it fades away. And there’s a lesson in that. It’s different than other religious art in that respect.
But sometimes lamas will consider an image so important, they do conserve it. This image is in that category. It’s super important, and I’ll tell you why another time. And it had a rough life, and I’ll tell you about that another time. But for now, yes, this image is very important and so it was conserved (see below). And that’s a great help to me!
You can reproduce a thangka, by any means. That’s okay too. Lamas do this with photographs all the times these days. This image/thangka was photographed and reproduced voluminously a while ago. But now, well, because of a giant bust up, you can’t get a copy. I know I tried. The bust up is another story I’ll tell you another time.
There’s an idea that the image itself has merit. By that I mean that this image has been hanging around in the halls of great monasteries and teaching assembly rooms of high lamas a long time. It’s “lived,” it’s “experienced,” it’s “been there”, it’s “heard”, “seen”, “absorbed”. Which sounds weird to some people but…..
If you know your Bible, you know it’s full of stories of objects imbued with power because of who owned them. And that power can be transferred to others, and do them good. The Old Testament story of laying a dead body on a prophet’s tomb and having the dead person wake up. The New Testament handkerchief healing story. Christianity is shot through with this sort of thing.
If you’re not a person of faith, that’s ok. Think of it like a Stradivarius. It was born in a certain time. It’s been played by many masters. It’s lived through good times and bad. It’s experienced the great halls, the great pieces of music. When you pick up a Strad, you pick up all that’s been before even as you experience it for yourself when you play it. It’s a bit like that.
Anyway, in the case of this thangka. The reproductions of it are good, but they’re of a beautiful thing that’s been obscured by the crud of time and events. (And that too would be a lesson, if you were a Buddhist). I value the poster image version I have of the original. But the artist in me? Yearns for more.
I can’t see the fullness of the original artist’s original intent. I can’t see it the way he or she saw it when it was first created. And so I know I’m missing out on something wonderful. (FOMO – so unBuddhist) There are hidden secrets in the painting. That’s how I feel. So I want to roll back time and see the original artwork, and the secrets.
I want to clean the mirror off (Buddhist metaphor alert). And the only way to do that at this point, is if I re-create it myself. And .doing that becomes a mediation in itself. And recreating it might generate some good “karma” that I can dedicated to some people that really need it, and I’ll tell you that story sometime too.
All this, I’m sure leads to your second noble question: But you’re a Christian, right? Yes, I am.
And your third noble question: So, isn’t this, recreating an “idol”…spiritually awkward? No, it’s not.
And your fourth noble question: And why is that? I’ll explain.
Up until I was 16, life was good. I was good student, I was on my way to getting into UC Davis and becoming a veterinarian. I wanted to work for US Dept of Fish and Wildlife, a wildlife center, or maybe a zoo. But I then I became sick. Doctors didn’t know what was wrong, or how to fix me. I started to lose time at school.
When I did get to school, my friends were living typical teenage lives, while I was using every ounce of strength just to keep my grades up. One night I had a dream. In the dream, I was in a large car driving down a wide road, but as I went, the vehicle got smaller and the road narrower, till at last I was on a tiny narrow bike and sliver of road. And I stopped, because I could see I was going to run out of road.
After a moment, I did a 180 and started back up the road. The road got wider and the vehicle I was in got bigger. I woke up and pondered the dream. I took that as a sign from my subconscious. If I didn’t turn back on road I was on, I’d run out of road. I’d die. But how did I do a 180 in my life?
At this point, I was 17 and a junior. I had plenty of good relations with and respect from my teachers and the school. They knew I was a serious student. I went to my school counselor and I explained the situation. Thankfully, she understood. She said I needed a plan. So we made a plan.
Because I’d missed so many days of school, I could get a medical leave. I could take the GED, leave school, and move down south with my Gran, if she’d have me. We called her, she said she would. I’d get a part-time job, thanks McDonald’s!, study for the SATs on my own, which I’d take the next year, then go to a community college.
She called my parents in for an “emergency” meeting. They were surprised, but to their credit, open to the idea and actually kind of relieved. They didn’t know how to make me well either. If this worked, great. So, I did a 180. I changed everything, hoping it’s be enough to get well. Sounds silly, but it was my only option. So I pulled a ripcord.
I got better, but I didn’t get well. It was disappointing. I had changed everything. New clothes, new friends, new hair, new diet, new place, new hobbies, new everything. I thought. Then one Sunday, sitting in church, I said to my Gran, “I think I need to leave the Church.” Because it was the last old thing I could change.
She said, “Do you still believe in Jesus?” I said, “Yes. I just think I have to go.” She said, “Then go, Jesus will go with you, and someday help you find your way back.” Then she whipped out her Sacred Heart scapular keychain began praying for my soul as I got up and walked home wondering what to do next. I was still a Christian person, so…..
I read up on Quakers, but they didn’t really live up to their 17th c dedicated Christian roots when I visited. I went to hang with Presbyterians, who were great people but not really my kind. Very wealthy, white, committee driven. The non-denominational white evangelicals, whose propose seemed to drive dollars into their wallets via endless books and tapes and nag you into proselytize to bring in other sheep to fleece were not my sort.
The trendy Pentecostal church? That was just ok, till the old white male pastor realised his beloved young white male youth pastor engaged in “unlawful acts” with young boys. I’d already seen that crap fest play out in the Catholic church, thanks. I heard the church collapsed inside 3 yrs, then the pastor, who was a great guy, was ousted and died. Literally died.
I went to a Four Square gospel church. Founded by a woman, who believed in divine healing. But it was all men, and give tithes. I checked out a super noisy, rock n roll mega church – way too loud. I read the gospels – as translated from various languages. I read some Gnostic stuff. And Celtic Christian stuff.
Nothing took. I branched out. I read the works of Joseph Campbell. I talked to rabbis and took classes at the Chabad. I read the Koran and the Vedas. I read the Tao Te Ching, Confucius, and Marcus Aurelius. My wiccan friends were welcoming, but none of it really clicked. What to do, what to do?
Then finally, I read some haiku and koans. I thought, I’ve never read any Zen stuff. I’d never read any sutras. I went to the library and read the Heart sutra and the Pure Land sutra. I’m very geeky. Physics, the nature of matter, time, neuroscience, nature of the mind, it’s all duck to water. So I found Zen philosophy interesting. But true Zen was way too Cistercian for me.
Still, I felt like a door had cracked open. And frankly, my knuckles were pretty bloody and my feet sore at that point. One day I saw a community center offering a class in ink painting with a Japanese teacher. Turned out, she was a Buddhist, and her teacher had been a Christian, who became a Buddhist. And I really liked ink painting, and her, so I kept taking classes.
Her kind of Buddhism, Nichiren, wasn’t for me. But I thought more about Buddhism, and began exploring all the different kinds. Someone told me “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” It’s true. One day, I saw an advert for the Dalai Lama, who was giving a public speech. So I went to hear the Dalai Lama.
He was there with will all his retinue, talking to true hardcore Buddhists. But when I walked into the great hall, I felt relief. I felt, “I’m home.” By that I mean, lots of chanting monks and nuns, a colorful altar and costumes, icons (thangka), bells and smells, they even had rosaries. There was major overlap with my Catholic experience. It was relatable in a way all the other places weren’t. And I really enjoyed his intellectual talk.
Before you freak out, and judge me, … no, go ahead. I don’t care. From then on, I began to explore vajrayana Buddhism. I subscribed to the Snow Lion, a paper for Tibetan Buddhists. Even as I was studying traditional Chinese painting with Chinese people who excoriated the Dalia Lama at the drop of his name. My Gran thought it was all weird, but….
I bought a thangka, of White Tara the wish-fulfilling wheel, because I felt like she was the me, the energy, I was trying to tap into to get well. And finally, I felt like I began to get better. Which was good because the neighbors began to ask Gran if I had cancer, as I had looked to them to be steadily declining since my move. Looks can be decieving!
One day in the Snow Lion I saw a small blurb about a nyingma teacher giving a lecture not far away. If you want to think about Buddhism like Christianity, think of nyingmapa as Catholics. It’s the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet. In fact it’s so old, that just like Catholicism, it gets accused of being too close to its pagan roots (which in Tibet means Bon, the shamanism practiced in Tibet long before Buddhism and still is today).
I thought of Buddhism like a form of science, a way of understanding the mind. Like psychology mixed with physics and a dash of esoteric pizazz? It was maybe Aspirin? At least it was willow bark. And I found I could relate to the Dzogchen cycle of teachings, which are the core of the Nyingma view of things, or non-things, or…whatever. So there I was, a sincere Christian among the sincere Buddhists.
I did some applied science. I tried the lama’s meditational practices, to see if they would help. I did ngondro. I did well on my SATS. I went to college. I met a doctor who knew what was wrong with me! After a couple years, I understood the 180 had worked. I listened to the still small voice. I would never be the person I’d planed to be, but that was ok. I liked who I was and where I was and where I was headed.
Then one day, at the airport, as I was boarding a plane for Europe and 1-month Buddhist retreat, I had an epiphany. My separating from the church, was never letting go of Christ. It was letting go of a male institution, with core book written by men, for men, to keep men, under a purportedly male god, in power. Well intentioned I’m sure, but … it was an institution trapped in a soul-crushing amber if you’re not a man.
I realised the Bible was a book of wisdom, not a rule book. And that Jesus was the core, my core, my savior and I was a follower of Jesus. Culturally I was a Catholic, and I liked the Church. But not the Church as an authoritative institution, just as as a group of goofy fellow believers traveling together trying to realise the meaning of Jesus’s teaching in their lives. Followers of the Way.
I realised all this, all at once, in a split second, as I looked at the ticket in my hand, my luggage already on the plane, standing in line to shuffle onto the gangway. And I realised something else. My lama, a person I greatly respected, was going to give an important empowerment. Think of it like getting a drivers license. You get written/oral instruction. Then you get road lessons with your instructor. Then you get your license and you’re free to drive.
And I thought, damn, this is a very special thing for Buddhists, for my friends in the sangha. These are people who will treasure and continue this practice. They should go and have this experience, get this empowerment. It would be wrong for me to do this, because I’m not looking at it like that at all. So that was that. I walked away. I had my luggage taken off the flight. I refunded my ticked and took a bus home.
I still have Buddhist friends. I still love” talking shop.” I still hold and value the few basic empowerments I possess, but they’re all I need. I’m not embarrassed to say Buddhism was (and still is) a ripcord for me. It works, like the willow bark, so when I need it, you bet I use it. But I am not a Buddhist, though my bookshelf might suggest to you otherwise. It’s just a way of working with the mind and subtle energy. It’s not my religion.
The path of life is twisty. I’m a better Christian because I had the opportunity to spend time with and learn from Buddhists. If Buddhism hadn’t been there for me, I might have left Christianity all together, forever. To this day, I tell people Buddhism saved my life. Because it did. I think God used Buddhism to save my life and my relationship with Jesus, and to put me on a new path.
When I hear people bash on other people’s religions, I think, tragic. These old ways, these other ways, you’re so scared of them, of them perverting your beliefs or turning you from God. But the truth is, they might be the only thing that can keep you alive or from loosing your religion.
Frankly, I think a lot of people these days are hearing a still small voice saying “You need to do a 180.” I get that may seem scary. And you may not understand how it can possibly be the right thing to do. But, read your Bible. Very often, the Lord himself will tell a person he cares about: turn around. In one case he even used an ass to do it.