I look for beauty in things, all things. Sunday, there was a beautiful bike race, the Paris-Tours. Not as exciting a finish as Liege-Bastogne-Liege (with its “counting chickens” ending), but great scenery. Wednesday, a beautiful, free, flame orange mask arrived for Gran. US Rx drug plans need their customers alive and not using said plans to achieve that profitable status. Thus, business has to step in where the US government balks.
This week also I’ve been enjoying a nightly walk admiring the planet Mars in opposition. It too is a lovely flaming orpiment. Tomorrow, I’ll be busy birding for science, the 2020 October Big Day, to try to help ensure avian survival against an ignorant government that see them as worthless and expendable. That would be the US government. Hoping to see some flame-breasted robins.
Maybe looking for beauty in things in today’s world, now, seems nuts to you. Maybe. Maybe I am slightly mad. It’s kind of a well known fact that artists are crazy. This comes historically, in the west, from dealing with substances no one knew were toxic over a course of time. For instance, lead white paint, or copper sulfide green paint, or beautiful gold, arsenic laced orpiment paint. All popular colors, all deadly if mishandled.
I keep a few such paints in my studio. Thanks to modern science, we know how to work with these materials safely. I can benefit from their dangerous beauty without suffering madness, or inflicting madness on those around me. It gives me hope someday science will find a cure for all the other kinds of madness out there and only the beauty will remain.
I said sometime I’d tell you why the beautiful old White Tara I’m recreating ended up looking so rough she needed conservation and why the image was so important lamas felt it should be conserved. Today’s that day. Lash yourself to a mast, Argonauts – one of whom was a remarkable woman, historical sirens and possible Tibetan name overload madness lie ahead.
Here is the start point we know to be true: the White Tara wish-fulfilling wheel thangka once hung in a silk brocade frame at a famous monastery in Tibet called Dzongsar Gonpa (gonpa means monastery). But who created her? Where did she come from? When did she arrive? Why is she there?Those origin story questions are a bit sticky.
Because we have a bit of a “where,” I’ll start there. Dzongsar Gonpa was founded in 746 AD by a Bönpo Lama (Bon is the traditional Tibetan religion, it’s shamanism). There was just a very small temple on this site, but it was considered a holy place so as Buddhism grew in Tibet, it moved into existing holy places. It didn’t destroy what was before, the way Christianity destroyed ancient Roman or Gaulish or Celtic traditional religions (aka paganism). It co-existed.
The original Bönpo gonpa was later transformed into a Nyingma and a Kadampa temple at some stage. In 1275 it was founded as a Sakya monastery by Drogön Chögyal Phagpa on his return from China. Pausing here to state the obvious, Tibet-China relations were quite good for well over six centuries at this point if you consider WT, as Princess Wencheng Li, lived 628 to 680s CE.
It fair to say that Dzongsar was a unique place from the get-go, a point of confluence for many different ideas. You’ve got Bonpo, Nyingma, Kadam and Sakya traditions building on and successfully sharing a site. Imagine if Jerusalem were a peaceful place where Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the pagan Canaanite traditions were all intersecting and interacting in a positive, mutually supportive, way.
Before 1958, Dzongsar had between 300 and 500 permanent resident monks, but it often had a lot of other people camped around the monastery. The monastery had 23 different temples, at the time, and many important sacred rooms, hermitages, and retreat centers. People would visit the temples and talk/listen to the lamas. Rich, poor, educated, ignorant, lamas, laypersons, students, all sorts of people. They stayed in tents.
Although Dzongsar was a Sakya monastery, it contained a unique collection of Rimé (ecumenical Buddhist) scriptures and teachings, gathered by the proponents of the Rime movement, Jamgon Kongtrul, Chogyur Lingpa and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Because of this, Dzongsar was known to be flexible in its teachings and it was possible to study any of the eight lineages (see, Major Lineages section) of Buddhism. Anything you want, they had it.
The Rime movement began in the 19th century (and still continues to this day) with Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé (who was Kagyu). Having seen how the Gelug branch of Buddhism had pushed the other Buddhist traditions into the back corners of Tibetan cultural life, they began to compile together all the teachings of the Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma, including many near-extinct teaching, to try and save them.
Because you never know what you’ll need in the future, and each person is unique and connects with a different teaching. Having a storehouse full of rich diverse treasures? Total plus!
Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (Kunga Tenpé Gyaltsen Pal Zangpo) (1820-1892), lived at Dzongsar. His residence there was known as “The Garden of Immortality.” So it’s fitting that this image of WT, who’s focus is granting a long life, though not immortality, should have taken up residence there in his empowerment (teaching) room. We don’t know when or how she arrived at his home in Dzongsar.
Khyentse Wangpo travelled all over Tibet in his youth. This WT thangka may have been given to him during his travels as part of receiving an empowerment or teaching from another lama of another tradition who wanted him to pass his lineage’s knowledge into Dzongsar’s vast Rime collection. The exact same style of lotus WT sits on in this image, shows up in Nyingma thangkas from the 17th century well into the 19th century.
We do know in 1855, Khyentse Wangpo wrote a WT sadhana (practice), which means he was already so well versed in the practice he was writing forms of it himself by 1855. So I think it would be safe to assume he had a WT thangka as a practice support (a picture to look at to help you with your mediation visualizations) long before 1855.
It is said in his biography that Khyentse Wangpo never left his residence (also called: the Joyful Grove of Immortal Accomplishment) at Dzongsar from the ages of 40 to 73. That would be 1860 to 1892. And we know WT was there with him. This makes the WT at least around 160 years old. Possibly much older. I’d say probably much older.
We know Khyentse Wangpo reported having many visions of White Tārā, during which the wisdom deity actually dissolved into this particular image. From time to time, she would also deliver prophecies, grant teachings and advice, bestow empowerments by sending out miraculous rays of light, and inspire countless pure visions. Heady stuff in vajrayana Buddhist circles.
There is also mention in the secret biography of the second Jamyang Khyentse, Chökyi Lodrö, (c. 1893 – 1959, who eventually took over at Dzongsar, which is why he’s the 2nd JK) of how this image of White Tārā granted him empowerments, delivered prophecies and bestowed the blessings of longevity, which he really needed because he led a challenging life. He got very sick, but recovered after heeding wise advice, ie, letting go of his monastic vows and getting married. He did a 180.
It was also said that other devoted students were able to receive advice from this WT directly. So she didn’t just talk to high lamas. Lowly students were hearing from her too. It’s pretty impressive and needless to say, because this image, has many well-known stories attached, and is tied to much supernatural phenomena, it’s considered immensely sacred and powerful. If you were going to go to conserve a thangka, you’d definitely conserve one with a history like this.
Coming back to Dzongsar, in 1958 all 23 temples were destroyed. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of Tibet from 1950 to the present, you might want to pause here and read up. The 1950s were turbulent times for Tibet. Even though the temples took a hit, the gonpa and its Rime collection and printing of rare works all survived. So, the church got burned, to try to kill off the religion, but the monks and books survived.
About a decade later, in 1967, as the monastery itself was on the brink of destruction by the communist Chinese, we know a devoted and quick-witted disciple tore the image of WT from it’s silk frame, concealed it carefully in a cloth, and placed it in a secure location. We don’t know his name or where he put it, but rolling up a 100+ year old image, and hiding it somewhere (damp from the look of the un-conserved image), is all that saved it. So thanks to you, unknown monk!
I want to pause here a moment. I’m not pro-Tibet and anti-China. I’m pro Tibet and pro China. I think they should be separate countries that trade and work together, as they were historically for over 1000 years, because I think that’s better for both countries, but that’s just my opinion. I have friends of both ethnicities. They may not like each other, or pretend not to, but I like them both.
Also, I kind of get that communism is hostile to organized religion in general, but not because of what true religion teaches. They’re upset because organized religion often ends up creating powerful political elites (the lamas and their extended families) who become large wealthy landowners (via the monasteries) and the poor get a pat on the head and told to pray. Sound familiar?
You could apply what happened in Tibet to Roundheads and Cavaliers in 17th c England. Revolutionaries and the Church in 18th c France. Etc, etc, etc. Anywhere you have people in poverty and the powerful co-opting religion for personal gain. It’s why the Founders wanted people to be free to have personal religion (or none at all) but never have a state imposed a religion. They’d seen nations go down this road and knew it ended badly, both for individuals and the state.
Anyway, I digress. Back to 1967 and Dzongsar…. the library collection once again survived, even though the monastery got ruined. Without that library, the suppression of Buddhism by the early Communists, would have been much more of a nail in the coffin. That we have so much teaching preserved from so many schools of thought is down to the Rime movement and the lamas who’d spent the previous century gathering them up.
What started as as reaction to one sect trying to push out all the others, ended up saving all sects from one political view point trying to push out all other political views out. Eventually the communists realised religion is a choice and it has a role to play in making people’s lives better not by controlling them but uplifting and empowering them. Those Rime seeds of knowledge, then regrew a magnificent diverse forest Buddhist practice, not just in Tibet but around the entire world. Yipee!
Decades later, when the current incarnation of the “wish-fulfilling jewel,” Dzongsar Khyentse Thubten Chökyi Gyatso (the 3rd in the line, after JK Wangpo, and JK Chokyi Lodro) was a teenager, he travelled to the reconstructed Dzongsar monastery. He was born in 1961, so maybe in the late 1970s? At this time China was opening to the west and part of that rebuilding things was lightening up a bit on diversity and religion. By 1983, they were rebuilding the monastery.
Dzongsar Khyentse’s appearance at the monastery led to this cherished WT image being taken out of hiding and offered to him. After this auspicious event, it was brought to India. And Dzongsar Khyentse currently has the image at his home in Bir (Northern India) in his shrine room. Of course, many of Dzongsar Khyentse’s things, like the WT, were first in the care of previous two Khyentse lamas. And not every lama has the same relationship with the same items.
When it was mentioned to Dzongsar Khyentse: “She [this image of WT] is said to have spoken to Khyentse Wangpo.” Dzongsar Khyentse remarked, somewhat indignantly, “Well, she’s never spoken to me!” But my take on that is: when you have a difficult life calling, you can only accomplish that with extra helpings of divine assistance.
The early Rime movement lamas had a herculean task to do – saving all of Tibetan Buddhism from destruction. No surprise to me that WT stepped in to help them. By comparison, Dzongsar Khyentse’s life calling, so far, has been something he has the gifts and tools he’s need to knock out of the park, without the extraordinary aide of a heavy hitter like WT.
But that’s just my opinion. When I hear Gran say “God help me,” because she is trying to walk 30′, I know God is there, and he cares, and he’s helping. But I’d only expect him to appear in a pillar of flame before me if he needed me doing something involving a genuine crisis, present or future. Read your Bible. Moses wasn’t looking to return to Egypt, ever. Mary wasn’t looking to be an unwed mother. And no one wanted the prophet Jeremiah’s job.
So anyway, that’s a brief modern history of this image of White Tara. I know I haven’t answered a lot of the sticky questions. Like what about before 1860? Well, more flies in the orpiment. It’s hard to say. In the next post, I’ll try to push back into her more ancient history by studying the image from an art history point of view. But this post is already a bit long.
I’ll stop today with this thought:
This White Tara wish-fulfilling wheel owned by Khyentse Wangpo is a unique work of art with a unique history. She’s extraordinarily memorable, and though she’s seen tough times, her genuine beauty will stick with you for a lifetime (maybe several?). She’s definitely worthy of deep pondering and meditation. But not so much so that it drives you mad.