Archive | November 2020

The Wise and The Therefores

Oh, that’s better. For a moment.

It’s been a good Thanksgiving. We did all our traditional Thanksgiving things, feasting, hanging Christmas lights (in 35 mph winds), setting up the baby Jesus’s nativity. It’s been normal, with the exception of my Significant Other not being here. Still, even a semblance of normal is a wonderful thing. It’s a feeling of standing above the sea of fog, just for a bit. But of course the stuff below the fog is still there. You can’t really pretend it’s not.

Monday, I get to rise above it all. Well, a lot of it. I’ll at least be back in a normal, modern, democratic first world country with a great public health care system. Things will as good as opposed to as bad as it can be under the circumstances. I decided not to take much with me. Just essentials and my WT stuff in a 18″ cardboard mailing tube. It all fits in a small, backpack carry on. It negates the burdens of taking baggage.

I thought I’d be seeing La Mere (the mother/chef) and Le Pape (the head/boss) only for a few hours. But, apparently, after my testy convo with the SO about flying, and BC upgrading their covid restrictions to California-like levels last week, and the realization that “home” would just be more of the same, his parents reconsidered returning to Europe. They’ve rebooked their flight to mid January. However, they won’t be staying on with us.

Sometimes, every day feels like is this day. But eventually? The burning fire within causes the deepest frosts to melt. And no, not doing a tummo practice. Copyright Marshall Vandruff.

Apparently a “company” decision was taken that, in light of the pandemic, the company should, right now immediately, have a piedàterre in the city where the North America headquarters resides, as they do in the EU. Wire transfers ensued. My feeling is La Mere is enjoying her stay and Le Pape, who spoke of touring Canada by bike next summer, needs more quite space to do his work remotely, and on EU hours.

In addition to condo buying “for the company,” a new car was also purchased “for the company” — leasing was deemed not as practical anymore. I’m told La Mere wanted a Hyundai Sonata (to dash around town) but Le Pere wanted a Honda CR-V (to stick a bike rack on). A compromise was reached when La Mere was offered final pick on the condo (the larger, more upscale one, of course) and minor decorator services.

I’m told the new place (like the new car!) is very white. It has “some fine views,” and plenty of space to work, play, and live. They move out of ours Dec 8, provided it’s ready and the “stay at home” order expires. So for now, they will remain a joyous part of our tiny pandemic pod/bubble. And I guess that means, for my first night out, provided the “stay at home” order expires Dec 7, I’ll get to go to a house warming and see somewhere new!

Scandinavian-white-on-white-interior-inspiration-nordicdesign-06 - Nordic  Design
Super chic, super beautiful. But I feel snow blind.

The SO is picking me up from the airport on his bike. He said he wanted to be able to hug me when I arrive, whilst in his covid-protective motorcycle kit, with masks and helmets on. He said he wanted my warm body next to his and my arms around him, even if it’s just once, for the duration of the ride home, before I go into my 2-week quarantine. Gosh, golly! I got choked up. But it may have been too much hot buttered rum-cider.

Since I’m going home shortly, I’m going finish up with WT today. At least as far as talking about the WT thangka’s imagery and meaning. I’ll be posting a couple more Buddhist-y thoughts from quarantine — after a long nap, some cat snuggling, and some injudicious indoor doggy go-fetch. I want to be honest here, of the WT things I know, they don’t all fit in single post. I’m giving you outlines, and points to ponder. And too, there’s plenty I just don’t know.

So, off we go. White Tara practices are mainly done to achieve long-life, alleviate illness, or remove obstacles that are indicative of an untimely death. Thangkas of WT are also frequently commissioned specifically for those purposes but sometimes for a deceased relative or friend to create circumstances for that person to have an auspicious rebirth. Two very different thangka types, but both serious stuff, right?

New Year Yidam Course: The Practice of White Tara - Grüner Baum EN
Typical of the “topless” White Tara.

Given how life and death, “high stakes” WT practices are, and how important a dignitary WT is in the Buddhist pantheon, you’d be wise to wonder “what is going on with all the images of her that are pretty much soft porn girlie nudes rather than important queen-like woman goddess?” It’s a valid question. I’ll circle back to that answer later, I promise. For now…

Let’s hit the “stock” items and talk about the “specialty” goings on hidden in them. In the case of WT, a stock item we haven’t talked about is her 7 eyes. She always has seven bow-shaped eyes, three eyes on her face representing the perfection of her body, speech and mind, two eyes in her palms and two in her foot soles symbolizing the “Four Immeasurables” — love (metta), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (uppekha).

Never forget, Tibetan Buddhism loves to count things and assign deeper meanings to those things (numbers, colors, shapes, objects, etc).

A specialty I want to put up is that WT’s hair and make-up are in Tang Dynasty style. We can tell that from the style of her brows and lips, not to mention her hairband full of flowers and ribbons. The Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE) was/is considered the height of China’s artistic development. Tang influence was vast in its time. This dynasty coincided with the great Buddhist expansion in China, so Tang art forms/styles became/remain a huge influence in Buddhist art across Asia.

Back again.

A set of stock items found not only on this WT, but many deity thangkas, is the 13 marks of a sambhogakaya. These “marks” are 5 silk garments and 8 pieces of gold jewelry (5+8=13). How artists style or count these 13 is open to some interpretation. For instance, some say there has to be a garment with 5 colors, a rainbow-stripe item, as you see that on the knees of the skirt of the topless WT above. Our WT artists goes in its own direction regarding the 5 colors.

Our WT is white. That seems to satisfy our artist. No clothing on her is white. Her main clothes are blue (top) and red (skirt, with blue trim). Her scarf is blue (and is formed by the ends of her sleeves, or is separate and arising from under her thighs, depending on how you see it). Her silk belt is green. All the garments and WT are decorated with yellow gold. In essence, all 5 colors are there. But it’s a different approach.

If you’re asking what this difference it means, well, I think we have to consider last Friday’s discussion about the innermost rings: the red, white and blue rings. Maybe, again, our artist is make a statement about foundational Tibetan Buddhism (red/west), intersecting with Chinese Buddhism (white/east), cloaked in primordial Buddha stillness (blue/cosmic/central). Maybe.

The Ruins of Guge Kingdom
Red Temple and White Temple of ruined Kingdom of Guge.

In WT visualizations, practitioners are often instructed to visualize a white Om, at her forehead chakra, red Ah at her throat chakra, and a blue Hum at her heart chakra. Red, white and blue. If you look closely at her longer necklace, it has larger round blue stones, flanked by tiny red ones. Given the sparse use of jewels (only 7 in total including the red square in her short necklace), the number, color, shape all probably mean something.

Also, it’s difficult to ignore the more tantric reference (red: menstrual blood, female, wisdom, solar channel; whit:, semen, male, compassion lunar channel; blue: consciousness, universal, awareness, lunar channel). Seated as she is in lotus pose, the up turned triangle her lower body forms is a yantra for male. The down turned triangle her upper body forms is a yantra for female. We’ll come back to this.

Please understand, I’m not talking about sex per se here. I’m talking about sex used to express the merging or union of wisdom with compassion/skillful means to attain enlightenment. Yes, there are sexual tantric practices, but in a thangka, it’s sex as symbol not as a guide book. If you want to know about the use of sex as a practice within the TB tradition, maybe read this. And of course, the Nyingma have their own way of looking at things.

Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Couple: The Metaphor of Ya b-Yum - Shambhala  Mountain Center
Yab-yum image. Wisdom and compassion in (sexual) union.

Probably good to remember that while our WT was owned by a Rime lama, it wasn’t necessarily created for him. We don’t know what practice, if any, was ever associated with our WT thangka or if the Rime lama even knew that practice. We only know JK Wangpo valued this particular WT, and even so, he went on to create his own WT thangka and practice later on. Our WT might represent a lot of strains of thinking, or it might lean heavily towards one, or it might represent only one. We have to speculate. We don’t know.

In Tibet they say there are outer, inner and secret teachings. That’s a minimum of 3 levels of symbolism (each with levels within!). In some respects, the WT, the central yidam, can be regarded as the secret level. The thangka has a background, an outer teaching (ours is lost), an infield within the rainbow rings, an inner teaching, and a sacred center area, a secret teaching. Mantras are considered part of the secret. The “initiated” receive the deity’s mantra. But the mantra is not the whole secret. Think… tootsie pop.

The amount of symbolism on/in a “meditational support” thangka can get head spinning. I’m going to give you just a little example about symbolism here. Remember when we talked about the 36-petal lotus that our White Tara, dressed in a red skirt, sits on? The ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Guge (Purang-Guge), now long gone now, had a Red Temple and a White Temple, each supported by 36 pillars. Symbolism connection? I dunno what it is. But I have to wonder.

Mini Unicorn Rainbow Donuts (Mini Rainbow Donuts with Unicorn Glaze) - The  Flavor Bender
Oh for the day, I can grab a baker’s dozen of rainbow unicorn donuts with friends in a cafe.

The level of cross-pollination of teachings going on in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Tibet was vast. Using Guge as an example again, Guge was of the Gelug sect in the 15th and 16th centuries. But in the early 17th century, 1624, Portuguese Jesuits arrived. Guge’s court was open to this “new” teaching. The Catholics were allowed to set up a church. Lots of people from the royal court joined.

This of course upset the established order, including the pro-Christian king’s brother, who was head Buddhist Lama of the kingdom. Buddhists felt their power slipping. Some Buddhist military leaders in Guge turned on the king. The king’s brother sold him out, and the open-minded ruler fell in 1630. Christians all got the boot by 1640. But there it is, Western European, Catholic Christianity circulating teachings in Tibet.

In 1680, the Great 5th Dalia Lama, the Nyingma one, had had enough of free-thinking Guge. He sent an army which crushed the kingdom. Legend says only about 200 people survived. (And yeah, on-going sectarian violence, just like today, not very enlightened.) Guge turned into a ghost town. But its repeated diasporas over the century meant all kinds of knowledge, including knowledge of Christ, was moving around Tibet.

Lighting the inner fire: subtle body as the path to Enlightenment — the  five chakras, three channels and two drops of Tantric Buddhism and their  practice - Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation
In Tibet, there are 4, 5, 7 or 10 chakras depending on the practice. This is the 5 chakra version, showing the 3 channels as well.

If you want to see the ruins at Guge, and you don’t mind sitting through some really incorrect history about why people “vanished” from Guge or some very, uh, unique (?) theories about Buddhist entities, chortens, and Buddhism, try Ancient Aliens series, “The Lost Kingdom” S16, E2, from History Channel.

Back to the 13….

  1. headband (red, always red for Amitabha, check)
  2. upper garment (blue with gold pattern, check, check)
  3. long scarf (blue, with gold pattern, check, check)
  4. belt (green with gold pattern, check, check)
  5. lower garment (red with gold pattern, blue hem trim, check, check)

The headband is a bit tricky. It’s actually always 2 different colors, because it’s 2-sided. Because of how it’s twisted, you only see the red by WT’sface. But check out the tail end over her right shoulder. You’ll see it’s actually blue on one side and red on the other. The headband and the floral crown are separate things.

Praise to Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) - Dechen Ling PressDechen Ling Press
Chenrezig, missing a medium necklace.

The floral crown is flowers on a gold band. The ends of the gold band can actually be seen on either side of WT’s neck among her black hair. It’s quite simple. It’s a simple crown fit for the yidam of a Buddhist practitioner wanting to be enlightened. But simple doesn’t mean without meaning.

The 5 flowers are meant to be something. The center is one yellow, maybe a champaka. The 2 outside ones are definitely champaka. The other two are small, red flowers. They’ve been given 3 large leaves so that they look like upward pointing triangles (yantra for male) with a red center dot. There are also leaves, foliage by each of the yellow flowers. They seem to be in sets of 3, like the one sitting just above the central flower on WT’s crown.

The 5 flowers could be 5 directions, 5 element, 5 chakras of the subtle body. However, the most common reading here is always as a reference to the 5 Buddhas, implying the 5 types of wisdom transmute the 5 types of poison (delusion) we face. The poisons of ignorance, desire, aversion, jealousy, and pride, are transmuted by all-pervading, discriminating, mirror-like, all-accomplishing, and equaniminous wisdoms.

So, again, numbers, symbols, meanings.

Premium Photo | Light blue floating fabric on white background 3d render
Let’s talk silk

I want to point up WT’s blue silk scarf because it’s important. You probablyt looked at it and went, “scarf.” But it has weird properties. It’s floating, like her red headband. Her top isn’t floating. Her skirt isn’t floating. Her belt ties aren’t floating. Where’s the wind coming from? On either side of her of body only? In a spiraling column or channel because the ends are moving in a spiral up?

Not only are the ends floating, all the visible ends are pointing up and to the same direction. On other thangkas, all the ends point toward the deity. Oversight on the artist’s part? I doubt it. Not this artist. There are left and right half lotus, each with the same number of petals, 14. Mirror images of each other.

So what is going on with the scarf, and headband, and the air? It’s probably not the same thing causing the slight ripples on the water below her. In fact our 3 little clouds on the water below are blowing toward WT from the direction opposite the direction her 2 scarf ends and 1 headband end are pointing. Is this reference to breathing practices?

Kundan Anklets Bridal Anklet Wedding Anklets Bridal Jewelry image 0
Kundan bridal anklet, held in place by a toe ring!

Along with the 5 garments, there are 8 jeweled ornaments.

  1. gold crown (check, tiara-like gold band with flowers)
  2. earrings (check, note the long danglers resting on her shoulders)
  3. short necklace (check)
  4. armlets (check)
  5. two long necklaces – a medium and a long. (nope, only one.)
  6. bracelets (check)
  7. anklets (check)
  8. rings (check, you need toe rings to her foot jewelry to stay in place).

Variation can happen in how things are counted, especially with necklaces and rings. Our artists seems to have decided rings (as on toes) plus a short and a long necklace, is 3, and with the other items, that’s the correct 13. The medium length necklace is left off.

Frequently, as on the Chenrezig image above, because he has two hands in prayer position at his heart, artists forget to put in the medium length necklace on him. (Chenrezig is Avalokiteshvara, in the Tibetan language. The Dalai Lama is said to be Chenrezig’s 47th incarnation.) Only people really looking would ever notice, or care.

Coming back to WT, our artist could have made the 2 necklace choice for an entirely different reason. And it might have to do with whatever practice was/is associated with this particular WT thangka. If you look at where the 7 chakras are and then look at our WT, you notice right away, the 7 chakras are marked out on WT.

The yellow flower on the sahasrar. The 3rd eye on the anja. The 3 conch marks on the visuddha. The large necklace on the anahata. The 3 up pointing arrow/rib lines at the manipura. The smaller necklace at the svadisthana. And the gold flower framed between her heels and belt right on the muladhara.

Keep in mind, Hindu Indian thought and practice, which preceded and was incorporated into Indian Buddhist thought and practice, always influenced Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice. So, we’re entering the realm of yoga now. And there is such a thing as Tibetan yoga, or trul khor (the magical movements) or yantra yoga or The 5 Rites (yup, 5 again). And that’s very much tied up with Dzogchen, the Nyingma sect’s highest teachings.

A beginner’s guide to Tibetan Yoga.

If you do yoga, you probably already know about chakras. You know pranayama practices are about controlling the breath, the life force (the silk scarf?). You’ve probably heard about kundalini yoga, which is the practice of moving the subtle body energy around in specific ways with a goal of attaining enlightenment. All these ideas and practices carried over into Tibetan Buddhism.

I want to be clear, Tibetan Buddhism views these things in their own unique way. Every religion has it’s own ideas about what’s going, and it’s own ideas about what the goal is. It’s a bit like the blind men describing the elephant. They’re all touching the same elephant. No one is right, or wrong. It’s just everyone is trying to figure it out and each group has its own path that has been found to work for them.

I’ve never done Tibetan yoga for religious purposes. I did try kum nye, which is the medical therapeutic purpose movement-based practice. It was actually helpful. I do Iyengar yoga and pranyama (I even do nidra yoga now and then). I see a lot of crossover. If you do yoga you understand that while it may be just an exercise form to you, it can also be a path to enlightenment if you choose.

LOTR Mountain Pass?, a photo from Washington, West | TrekEarth
Caradhras the Cruel is not everyone’s path.

Anyway, in Buddhism, getting out of the endless cycle of rebirth comes with enlightenment. So, enlightenment as a goal can be for the sake of enlightenment itself, or it can be enlightenment for the sake of salvation. As a Christian, I had the salvation bit covered. I was curious about enlightenment, but really I just wanted to be well. So, I’m in a weird third category I guess.

Even if your goal is “just” enlightenment, like all true paths, the higher paths can be quicker, but much they take more concentrated effort and are more fraught with dangers. Like headstand. You probably don’t want (and physically can’t) start there. A good teacher wouldn’t let you. The same is true for high tantra paths.

You don’t take that mountain without a qualified teacher (a guide who knows the way), a solid practice (you’re warm clothes and staff) and a deep understanding of what you’re doing and why (intimate knowledge of snow and snow shoes) or you could literally drive yourself crazy. There are excellent lower paths, safer paths, they can take around the mountain, to the same destination, they just take a bit longer.

Amazon.com : Net World Sports Forza Soccer Goal 8x6 - The Premier Soccer  Goal Brand! Great Gift for Young Soccer Stars! : Backyard Soccer Goals :  Sports & Outdoors
Totally not my goal.

It has to be said again, not everyone has the same goal. You have to figure out your goal. You may not know your goal, because you don’t even know what’s out there to attain. But once you start down a path, you find out from others what’s a reachable goal, your goal gets clearer, or maybe changes completely. And that’s okay.

Rainbow body? Travel to other planes of existence? All very cool, but honestly not of interest to me. Seeing the world with luminous awareness? Attaining buddhahood? Sounds like fun a physics thing. Nice, but then what? As a Christian, focusing on living a life of love and service, here and now is a worthy goal to me. Perpetual bodhisattva. That’s me.

If you want a fuller picture about how Tibetan Buddhism views the body, and energy, and all that, you might get a copy of Robert Beer’s “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols” and read Appendix Four: The Channel Wheel System. Robert is Gelug, I think. He’s a deeply learned Buddhist thangka artist. You can’t do better than his clear, concise 6-page discourse on the matter. It’s a great book full of fun stuff!

Hinduism Yantra Sacred Geometry Mandala Stock Vector - Illustration of  hinduism, dasa: 146085858
White Tara Yantra

Heading off into yantra now. I’m going to bring up the very strange shape of Tara’s necklaces, especially the large one. I kept thinking I’d seen it before. Then I realised. It’s a yantra symbol. Above is the WT’s yantra. Look at the inverted triangle, with the little dot in it. Now look at WT’s necklace. Inverted triangle with a little square.

Now look at the little tail dangling down from WT’s necklace. I wondered about that too, till it finally hit me. Because Tibetan Buddhism is influenced by Indian Hinduism and tantra, I had to cast an eye in those directions. When I did, I ended up thinking, “Gee, this a lingam (square/round) and yoni (inverted triangle with dangle) I’m looking at.”

Lingam and yoni are often represented together, symbolizing the eternal process of creation and regeneration as well as the indivisibility of masculine and feminine, Shiva and Shakti, consciousness and action, immanence and transcendence. It’s about moving energy through the body (and sex). Again. We’re back to the same idea, in a slightly different expression.

File:National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka - Lingam-Yoni - India.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka

Sure, it sounds weird, but, WT’s necklace is also over her heart chakra. The Bana lingam (one of 3 lingams in the body according to yoga) is located at the level of the heart chakra. This lingam represents the inner guru, that lucid awareness or inner compass that inspires us in every step along our spiritual path. It’s a symbol of consciousness, that witnesses energy/skillful means, which here is the power of devotion from the heart.

So, devoted students can access their own conscious awareness through ardent devotion? Is that the message? Or one message, of many here. I really don’t know, but this artist seems to be signaling the same message, in a number of different forms here. I don’t know why the artist is using multiple forms, but Rime? I’m guessing.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention, of the 3 lingams that yoga references as being in the body, through which the kundalini shakti, subtle energy, moves and brings us to enlightement, the itara lingam is marked by WT’s third eye in her forehead, and the svayambhu lingam is marked by a gold flower, between WT’s heels and framed by her belt ties.

Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity) - Chintamani (Standing with  Tree) (Himalayan Art)
Note that shape turns up on crowns and earrings.

Moving on. Since were were talking about Avalokiteshvara anyway…. There’s a version of Avalokiteshvara that’s called Chintamani lokeshvara, ie, the wish-fulfilling lord of the world. In this form, he stands under a wish-fulfilling tree full of jewels shaped, peacocky leaves.

See the leaf-shape pendants hanging off WT’s hoop earrings? That’s probably a reference to Avalokiteshvara, who is another manifestation of Amitabha. But that’s a rabbit hole, I’m not going down. I’m just pointing it out. Many times this leaf shape appears on deity jewelry, see the yab-yum above. Check out the bracelets.

White Tara is Chintamani chakra Tara, ie, the wish-fulfilling wheel Tara. Avalokiteshvara is Chintamani lokeshvara, ie, the wish-fulfilling lord of the world. So, some crossover and emphasis by the artist on the wish-fulfilling aspect of WT for sure. And just to be clear, WT’s jewelry, has ball finials, not leaf shaped ones on them. What does that mean?

Would you be surprised if I told you the jewelry is all on major groupings of acupressure points?

White Tara always sits in lotus-posture on a white disc in the center of a white lotus. Artistically you need the light pink to pick out and show detail on the white. Some artists used pale blue (so, a bit grey-blue) to do the picking out. This is how we came to have, today, all pink or all blue lotus petals. What started as a necessary artistic convention, began to skew the religion in people’s minds till people began to incorporate the artist’s mere necessity as a religious fact. Hold that thought as we continue.

Tara is always depicted as beautiful, peaceful, graceful and youthful like a sixteen-year-old. Ok, so….16 years old. Let’s talk about that. Tibetan medical texts say girls are sexually mature at 12 (and boys at 16). Which makes a girl’s 16 then, equal to 30 today? Average life expectancy in 1951 in Tibet was 35 years. So 16? Sure young, but also average middle age even in the 20th century. Probably 16 as fully mature was even more true in the 18th or 19th century when I think this WT thangka was made.

Tara is always said to have with full breasts, although our painting looks like it was done by someone that’s never seen a breast, full or otherwise. However, those breasts hide a secret. Look closely at what the outline of her left breast and hand form. It’s a crescent moon. The symbol of male/skilful means (or method). And the right breast then becomes the sun. The symbol of female/wisdom. Pretty neat.

Sun - Moon - APC by paintedfingers on DeviantArt

Expanding on the breasts, look how the stem of the utpala, symbol of enlightenment, comes out of WT’s cleavage. The artist is sending a super clear message. I find it sort of interesting you have the inverted triangle of the necklace pointing down and the up triangle markings on the solar plexus. Male/female. With the sun/moon breasts in between. And utpala stem swirling through and up.

It’s always mentioned Tara has a narrow waist. The WT thankga here shows an abnormally narrow waist, positively death defying. But she also has very clear up angle (triangle) markings as rib marks on the solar plexus, indicating a person with strong ascetic bent, by this I mean habit of fasting. This is not to say WT fasts, but I think it’s a recognition of real serious (female) practitioners, who would be fasting periodically.

Tara is always shown smiling and her face radiant and white like a full moon. The moon face is the most attractive type of face in China. Makes sense. Part of her long blue-black hair is bound up into a slightly askew double topknot (which is a bodhisattva style). The other half hangs loosely down her shoulders and back. It’s not the perfect, elaborate hairstyle of a royal. It’s the hairstyle of a serious practitioner.

Sweet doing nothing. Dolce far niente Canvas Print / Canvas Art by John  William Godward
A lot of this kind of exotic soft porn in British art of the late 19th c.

Although it probably gets overlooked, you need to look. Our WT has a full top on (though it is not tied up). She is not actually bare breasted and half naked. WT as a female Buddha is not really someone I can take seriously in many thangka, especially the modern ones. So, how did we get to WT as semi-nude, young girl dripping with jewels and very much a male viewer’s sexual fantasy?

Well, as we’ve talked about before, there was a belief that if an artist gave an image more jewels, the artist and the owner of the thangka would get richer. So artists making religious art that had as its purpose helping them/their patrons achieve wealth was a real thing.

We’ve talked about her being 16, which today is young. But when texts were written, not so much. So partially, the “young” is a mistake based on evolution in health care. Tara should be, in actual modern equivalent, 30 probably. Youthfully mature, not underage. Check male deity descriptions, I doubt they ever use the word “young” there.

The WT thangka shows a slender, even ascetic version of a woman. She’s certainly not voluptuous (in terms of curvy). But modern sadhanas use of word “voluptuous,” a wholly sexualized term one could never use on a male deity. This word “voluptuous” as a key instruction of how to visualize WT. “Voluptuous” might be a mistranslation for well-proportioned or pleasing or some word you could use for a male deity too, but … male translators?

Alexandra David-Néel · Avaunt Magazine
Alexandra David Néel and friend. How people really dressed in Tibet.

I honestly think the nudity has to do with the commercialization of thangkas and degenerate foreign influence. I’m thinking thangkas being painted for more secular reasons, as exotic art white “Christian” British civil servants and soldiers could leer at, but still insist was not porn but just art. Read The Queen’s Daughters in India by Elizabeth Andrew & Katharine Bushnell, MD. from 1899. It’s only 59 pages, but it makes clear the degenerate bit.

There’s a lot of nudity in Indian art. Make sense, it’s a warm country. The body is nothing to be ashamed of. And Buddhism is an import from India, so it’s natural there would be an artistic influence imported as well. On the other hand, Buddhism was also, simultaneously imported from China. So it’s natural there would be an artistic influence imported from there as well. Neither of those are noxious influences. But they’re not wholly benign either.

That Chinese influence is something we’ve been talking about. I already mentioned the Tang art influences. And of course, we have Indian flowers, chakras, and yantra. But it’s important to remember that Tibet blended these schools of religious thought and religious art with its own native religion and art to speak its own truth in its own way. What I’m asking you to think about is how, as one’s world expands through trade, one’s thinking and art sometimes changes – and not always in a good ways.

Maker unknown (Chinese), Guanyin, 960-1368
Guanyin is a lot of things, including sometimes male and sometime female, but semi-nude is never one of them. First transgender Buddhist saint?

India, Nepal and China were trading directly with Tibet. For centuries, the British Empire’s trade network included trading with India, Nepal and China. The British desperately wanted to trade with Tibet directly, but Tibet wouldn’t have it. When things didn’t work out, there was a failed British invasion of Tibet in 1904. Thank God for high mountains with treacherous passes.

Nevertheless, we have to accept the British presence in the region from 1757 to 1948. European contact with China dates back to 1300, British contact from 1793 officially, but unofficially a least two centuries earlier. We know Western missionaries (Jesuits) were wandering about Tibet in 1624, and China in 1582, and in India in 1542. Western influences were surrounding Tibet, creeping around within Tibet. They had to be influencing existing indigenous religious, social, artistic, cultural, and economic norms.

My sense is, powerful female figures like Tara over time became diminished as a result of Western Christian anti-female influence in the region. I think there’s a reason that today’s Tara has her head demurely bowed, her body bent — as if she’s servant. I think there’s a sexist reason modern Tara isn’t always shown with all chakravartin insignia before her, appearing as one vested with chakravartin authority.

File:Postcard of portrait of 19 year old Tibetan woman in Lhasa-style dress  and amulet.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Tibetan woman, 19 years old, in India in 1884. She looks like she could kick ass.

Tara should sit erect, like a male Buddha, in lotus pose. Our old White Tara does that. If you look at the modern pic of Chenrezig, way above, and then our old WT, you see they are both the same. They are artistically invested with the same qualities. They wear the same upper garment. They sit the same way. They have the same head shape. That’s not true of Chenrezig compared to the “topless” Tara. She’s an older Tara, but she seems diminished, perhaps by an artist who has been “western white Christian” gender-bias influenced.

Determining the impact of Western Christian, anti-woman, anti woman with authority, culture on Tibetan culture is not something I’ve made a huge study of so think as you wish. But in the art of China, you see more female moon-round white faces. European more female egg-shape white faces. Chinese women, straight standing. European women, bent from their corsets. The classic white European artistic stock female parts, unfortunately, all show up in Tibetan most powerful female deity thangkas.

It’s true that when artists begin making commercial art for foreigners, it corrupts their traditional art forms and over time starts to impact traditional religious views. That’s the power of art. Suddenly the white lotus is pink or blue and not white at all. But it doesn’t mean all artists do it. Or that every branch of a religion accepts this kind of foreign “creep.” You tend to get two kinds of images for a period of time, one that’s religious, one that’s commercial.

Liliana's Gothic make-up: Studio-Early Victorian hairstyles
Typical egg faced, bent over, head tilted, vapidly smiling Victorian women. The Three Robinson Sisters (1846). George Theodore Berthon, Canadian! But this art trend started c. 1815.

Lamas used to be the primary painters of most thangkas. Because they were religious objects used for religious purposes. Now most thangkas are made by professional artists. People who make a living selling art to other people – any people, of any culture and any religion. Tourist trade stuff. Religious thangkas are a minority of what’s being purposefully commissioned. And I’m not saying this is wrong. It just is. People gotta eat.

Tourists are encouraged to buy thangkas to support the local artists. And lamas are ok with that. It’s a modern world. HH the Dalai Lama gives teachings and empowerments online now. HH moves with the times. An old lama publically objected to HH doing this a few years back, got smacked down pretty quick, and publically repented. And now, in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we can see why HH was right about going online!

There’s no blame here. We all grow up with toxic ideas about everything, race, politics, class, religion, gender, even our own gender. There used to be lots of lamas that would tell a woman, you have to be reborn a man to reach enlightenment, in your next life. So be a good woman (by the male culture’s definition) now and maybe you’ll get your chance later. Sound familiar?

HH the Dalai Lama, in case you didn’t know. He’s Gelug.

My lama said that was horse puckey. Human being is a human … being. Enlightenment fully possible for woman. Modern thinker. But people are often so enmeshed in their culture (or trying to hang on to what they think still is culture in the face of a world passing them by) they don’t even understand their thinking has nothing to do with preserving their culture and is actually way out of sink with logic or reality.

If you want a good look at how pervasive sex-bias still is in the West, read this article in March in The Guardian about what happened at work when a female transitioned to male. Or You can read here about how becoming a man increases your economic outcome, but transitioning to a woman results in decreasing your economic outcomes. As for the modern East? Check out the documentary about the one child policy in China, One Child Nation. Count how many times “vasectomy” or “forced sterilization of men” was brought up by anyone, including the female director. (None.)

Remember the dog opening the box to get the treat vs the toddler? Everyone is like that toddler in some respect. Very few people slow down and ask “why do I do this?” or “why do I think this?” My lama was not a progressive, he just questioned his mindset, honestly, and realised there was no logic to “enlightenment” sex discrimination. He still got upset if you stepped over, instead of around, a sacred text or wore a mala as a fashion statement. But he in those instances he was upset for legit and rational reasons.

Dog Box Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock
Trying to be at least as smart as my dog.

In fact, my lama was once asked if the Dalai Lama might be reborn a woman. He said, “No reason why not, a white, western woman — from a family that practiced Tibetan Buddhism.” So a white German woman could be the next incarnation of Chenrezig. A Nepali girl born in Australia in 1997 might be the new Panchen Lama. And this brings to mind how far many minds have yet to go.

To my lama, a woman might be the next incarnation of His Holiness, and a man might be an incarnation of Machig Labdron. The idea that only men are incarnations of men/male deities and women are incarnations of women/female deities was a non-starter to him. To most men though, that’s still kinda “out there.” And the idea that those incarnations as well might be a different color? orientation? nationality?

Yes, even some very great and good enlightened folks have a long way to go still. But as for me, I’m done. Namaste. I have other things to be getting on with soon. Advent calendars to buy. Chocolate to eat. Planes to catch. Anything else you want to know about White Tara, you’ll have to go and ask her. It’s what I did. She’s sure to answer. Reminder: online White Tara Empowerment this Sunday. Everyone welcome.

My shift it over. I’m going home alive. Thanks, Sean. RIP. (The Untouchables, 1987)
This entry was posted on November 27, 2020.

Plenty to be thankful for! T-Day bonus post

From the movie Holiday Inn (1942).

My Gran and I were watching the local news Monday. A chirpy young female reporter asked a white middle-aged man waiting in long foodbank line for a Thanksgiving basket, what he was thankful for. There was a long pause. He looked at her smiling face and said, “I lost my job months ago. My wife is still working, but her hours were severely cut down.” She went on smiling, and cut to the studio.

I looked at my Gran and said, “He’s alive.” Gran said, “And he’s not sick.” I said, “He had a job, so he might be getting UI.” Gran said, “He has a wife.” I said, “She’s still working.” Gran said, “He has a happy dog.” (It was in the car with him). I said, “He has a car.” Gran said, “And it has gas.” I said, “He’s got access to food.” Gran said, “He must have a home to cook it in.” I nodded.

After a long pause, while the anchors bantered about covid fatigue, my Gran said, “I’ll bet you really want to go home.” I felt some tears slide down my face. I shook my head and brushed them away. “That’s the worst part. No matter where I am or who I’m with, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.” “That happens to people sometimes,” my Gran replied, “in a war.”

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Sometimes, you just need someone to talk you down. 1-800-BUTTERBALL.

I thought about Frodo, back at the Shire. There, but not there. He eventually sailed into the West. Last time I checked, covid had shut down cruises, not that Viking sails to the Undying Lands. And anyway, the war wasn’t over for me. The ring was still hanging around my neck. Doing damage, not just to me but everyone, the whole world.

I looked at my Gran, 90+ years and many wars won. “So,” I said, “how do people recover?” Gran thought for a moment, “They just decide home is wherever they are, and family is whomever they’re with, till the war ends. Then they find a nice spot and build themselves a new life.”

She was right.

What was essentially was “wrong” with me was all in my mind, in how I looked at my situation. Much like the man and his dog. The man was unhappy. His dog was not. His dog was bouncing around the car, happy to be out, traveling with his favorite person, in a line full of smells of delicious food. People really are way less intelligent than animals.

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Oak Island, the only place you want to keep digging even when things aren’t working out.

Humans have problems leaving behind mindsets that are incorrect, irrelevant or outdated. Animals don’t. “What, no food here today?” Okay. Move on or starve. I was resisting the fact “the covid war” was still raging, 11 months later. I long accepted “the war” existed, but the holidays at war was new battle. I had to accept that, and move forward, find new ways to fight the enemy, and always keep in mind that when it’s over, I get the privilege of building myself a new life.

If you think arriving at such acceptance is easy, ask yourself how hard it was for you to accept necessary changes, to accommodate saving your own life, or the lives of those you care for, during the pandemic. I’m guessing it was really, really hard at first. I’m guessing as time wore on, it got easier. Maybe you almost reached some kind of acceptance or balance eventually.

But now, with the holidays, having to face a new set of “firsts” again? I’m guessing today, while some of you are forced to prep a turkey, or side dish, or pie or side dish, for the first time, on your own, maybe without the guiding presence of a special loved, who might have passed too soon this year, today seems incredibly hard or sad. Or both.

Home Alone (1990) - IMDb
1990. Still holds up.

Hang in there. There is an end in sight. Remember all the folks on the frontlines, duking it out with covid, risking their lives to save others, while you are home, safe, eating a meal and maybe watching a heart-warming movie or the Ravens pick the bones of the Steelers. What you do these next few days might be the most important thing you ever do. You’re helping the whole nation, by staying safe, and staying home, alone.

I get to be “home-ish” with immediate family this year. They arrive in a few hours. It’s great gift, but it’s only happening because there’s no safer option. My Da has to come down with my mother. Mutti has to take over 24/7 caregiving my Gran, because I need a break. Da has to drive me to the airport so Mutti can stay with Gran and so I don’t have added risk by sitting an in a public transport to the airport for an hour or more. I have to fly home because there isn’t any other option.

My parents (and Hugh, who lives with them still), have been quarantining for 2 weeks and were covid tested before this trip. I have been virtually living in quarantine 24/7 for months, given Gran is 90+ and that’s what it takes to keep her safe. I go out in a mask, once a week, for 1 hr, for mail and groceries. That’s it. We’re being as safe as we can.

Entrepreneurs: Change Your Mindset to Achieve Success
And covid wins.

When I see other people who are traveling for the holiday just because they can, and they want to? I despair of them. I get so angry. I have to stop and remember they are victims of war too. Victims of bad government, misinformation propaganda, and sometimes just the stupidity of youth.

I recall to mind the Dalai Lama told about the lama that was 18 years in a Chinese prison/re-education camp. His Holiness asked him, “We’re you ever scared you might abandon your faith?” The wizened old lama said, “Oh yes, many times. I feared I might lose my compassion — for the Chinese.”

Don’t let covid win. Don’t give aid and comfort to the enemy. Do the right thing now, for a better future soon. Can’t be with your usual family? Make some time for getting out in nature. Make a new family, like Snow did.

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Be who you are. True friends will surround you and support you.

Virtually reach out a hand to an old friend. Take the initiative, make the call/tweet/post/email. Even if they don’t answer, it’ll show on their phone/feed you were there, you thought of them, and cared enough to do something.

How to make compassion thrive | TED Talks
Be there for someone.

Maybe have a look through your brain box and tear down a few mindsets your family left you that are past their sell-by date and kind of stinking things up for you.

Berlin Wall anniversary: Fall of the wall 30 years on - CBBC Newsround
Taking down an old mindset can be done at any age.

Try a little time with a good book, good art, good music, or just looking out your window. Find some tail-wagging joy in the day. Roll in a pile of leaves. Put on a really ugly sweater and dance. Get some paper, tape, and scissors and decorate your window.

Easy and Inexpensive Christmas Window Decoration Ideas
Light a candle in the window.

Think about all the good in your life, all the good in the world, and what a wonderful world it is. Above all, make a little time tomorrow to be truly from the heart thankful for something.

Calling All Eco-Sattvas: Buddhism and Climate Change | One Earth Sangha
Best gift ever. Thanks!

This entry was posted on November 25, 2020.

Like a Bridge over Covid Borders

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park
Sometimes thinking about getting home can feel like this.

I only have a couple more weeks before I pass through the final bardo. I think I’ve accomplished the one goal I had when I arrived, the reason I was summoned, get my Gran stable. Thanks to Lisnopril and good dosage titration…yeah we’re there. I feel good about that. Good for her, good for Mutti, really good for the Significant Other!

There was a spot of bother about my re-birth in the Pure Land this week. I have a post-Thanksgiving return flight all booked. It’s all planned out. My Da drives Mutti down, we all have T-day and the weekend. Monday, crack of dawn, Da dumps me at LAX, then he goes back to Gran’s for a last breakfast before driving home alone. All sounds good.

But with all the warnings not fly now, the SO is not wild about my travel plans, even with a cloth covered N-95 mask, gloves, and safety goggles. I want to get home ASAP to start quarantine right away. I don’t want to lose more precious days with the SO. I understand the feelings, he’s thinking safety first. I just feel differently.

Yeah, I sent the SO this.

In 2020, I’ve been home 4 months. If I throw in December, 5 months. If 2021 turns out like I think it will, best case scenario, I’m going to be home 8.5 months. If I have to come back in Sept 2021 because that’s how long it takes to get a vaccine in the US? I could lose 3 more months and be home only 5.5 months. It’s been a long, long time, and I’m tired of being at the front. I want to go home.

I reminded the SO that his “decades older than me” parents were flying home, 12 hrs with multiple airline-required mask changes every 3 hrs. My flight was under 3 hrs. Was he telling his folks to drive across Canada and take a ship to Europe? Did he really expect me to drive 20 hrs, 1,200 miles, in winter, in Gran’s 1999 Chevy that hasn’t been 7 miles from the house in years?

His response was deafening silence. I could tell he was probably turning over a response. Before it came, La Mere in the background began talking to him, in French. I heard her take his phone from him. “He had to go.” she said in a bubbly tone. I bet. Off to have a scream in the backyard?

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On a scale of concern, maybe a 3? Although with the words Demon, Brew, and New Zealand adjacent, maybe more a 7.

“We are bottling the beer we made.” This was news. “You’re making beer?” “Did we not tell you?” “No, we did not.” “I guess we forgot.” Apparently Le Pape bought a beer-making kit online to while away the time during the newest provincial lockdown. Things had now reached the stage where liquid was being poured into bottles and then it was into the closet for a couple of weeks.

She said they were going to open the brews the day I got home. I thought we’d miss each other, but apparently, they leave the afternoon of the day I arrive. Because I arrive in the morning, I’ll get home and be able to have lunch with them — from behind my glass door. But still, a fest a la La Mere! Yum.

She said it was good I was flying, so we could all be together, however briefly. “N’est-ce pas?” she called to her son. “Bien sûr.” came the frosty response. It was not a happy ending, but not all endings are. I felt bad. The SO is not a churl. Just the opposite. But there was nothing I could do. If I had a better car, I would attempt the drive. But I don’t.

Amitabha Buddha Thangka Hand Painted Tibetan Painting in image 4
This is the bottom of an Amitabha thankga. Enlightenment Thankgas Etsy.com

And that was that. I accepted reality and moved on. What he did, I dunno. I began to pull out the Thanksgiving décor. Clean the house. Tidy the garden. Get in a couple weeks worth of food and supplies. And generally ready up for the coming caregiver hand-off. Too, after all that beer talk, I had to call ’round to see if I could find a nice turkey-appropriate tripel (a type of brewski) for Da.

So, since we’re talking libations, we’re walk through the WT offerings today. You thought I’d forget, didn’t you? But first, before we break camp and travel on, I need to go back to the botany. After meditating on WT and before tuning in to Joel Osteen last Sunday….yeah, I’m complicated …. I had an epiphany. I had never counted all those pesky ambiguous green leaves in the rings or the WT’s lotus seat petals.

Turns out, out artist gives us, not 64 lotus petals, but 64 lotus leaves (msotly in groups of 3) surrounding Tara. And with that, I’m even more convinced we are meant to view this work as a mandala. (If you want a great free read on the art of mandalas, Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism.) Which makes the odd stuff around the rim, hidden under the corner paint, almost certainly some type of stylized fire.

Keep in mind, too, that mandalas are designed to pass on secret knowledge. So this also explains why the WT is so full of strange secrets. Speaking of which, The actual lotus seat of WT is made up 6 sections of 6 petals, so 36. If you add in the 8 full leaves on the utpala, you get 8+36+64 or 108. And the two tiny odd shape oval leaves off the utpala, make a perfect reference to the 2 counters you find on every 108 bead Tibetan Buddhist mala.

The Art to "Cowboy Camping" - Nomadic-Nuance
Ok folks, saddle up. We’re moving on. Plan your getaway.

Okay, so moving on. Almost every thangka has an offering pile somewhere on it. There’s a wide variety of offerings that can be made. Most folks – and this includes most Buddhist folks — have no idea what these offerings are, let alone what they mean, because they do have meaning.

What ends up in an offering pile depends on what/who is being depicted and the artist creating the thankga. Take a look at the offering pile, front and center, at the bottom of the WT thankga below. Difficult to see, I know, but …. I’ll help you out.

What’s on the WT thangka is almost identical to what’s on the Amitabha thangka example a few paragraphs above. And that should tell you something right away. The kind of offering Amitabha deserves or warrants is equal to the kind of offering WT deserves or warrants — in the artist’s view.

Tightly grouped pile, a bit hard to see everything.

On the scale of important deities, Amitabha falls just below the Buddha himself in many people’s view. He’s hugely popular. In the artist’s estimation, going by the offerings, WT is way up there, equal to the likes of Amitabha. High indeed. Okay, so just what are the offerings shown on the WT thangka?

Starting at the left, here’s what I think I see:

  • round queen’s earrings,
  • red coral (wheel),
  • Elephant tusks,
  • Mirror
  • Conch shell
  • triple-eyed gem (flaming jewel), in vase.
  • Conch shell
  • a general’s insignia (as a trefoil cloud)
  • Unicorn (rhino) horn,
  • square minster’s earrings,
  • lots of red and black cintamani

In the list, there are 7 items in bold. These 7 represent a grouping called the “insignia of the chakravartin.” A chakravarti is said, in Hindu or Buddhist lore, to be a virtuous universal king who rules all of the great continents of earth. I once heard a Tibetan lama say a woman could never be a chakravarti. Uh….. I think the artist here disagrees. I know I do.

Just a reminder. Open to ALL, no matter your beliefs.

The 7 items in the list signify or reflect what a great king would have. A queen, chariots, elephants (war and peace machines), a general (with soldiers), an octagonal magical gem (often interpreted as a religion, ie, Buddhism), a cavalry (again, horses as war and peace machines), and a prime minister.

When you see these 7 items on a thangka, there’s a “master of the universe” vibe going on. Or in this case, mistress of the universe. Trained Buddhist thangka artists would know when to use these items. Other artists….not so much. Way to judge the religious quality of a thangka on the fly? Check the offerings to see if they’re appropriate.

Chakra means wheel. The chakravarti is the wheel king. It’s the idea of a king that rules the whole world (a wheel in itself) with peace (which some interpret as the wheel of dharma). Since the chakravarti is virtuous, 7 miracle treasures appear. I’m not going to name all these, rabbit holes, not important now, just know they’re not the same as the 7 insignia. (And that people everywhere just really like the number 7.)

The Real 'X-Files'? CIA Reveals Weirdest UFO Stories | Live Science
Yep. I know.

Included in the 7 miracle treasures is something I will tell you about because it’s important. It is a large wheel spinning (the chakraratnaya) that appears in the sky. The king and his entire army (all the horses, chariots, soldiers, and elephants) can then travel anywhere within the spinning wheel in the sky. Think about how big the spinning wheel in the sky has to be to carry an entire army.

Anyway…The king travels all over the world — in his airborne spinning wheel — and teaches all other kings how to rule with peace. (Ashoka is considered a chakravarti.) The king can even travel to the lower heaven (i.e., other) realms with the power of chakraratnaya if he so chooses. I know, I know, you don’t care. You just want to talk about the flying wheel. Okay, fine.

Yes, I know, it sounds a lot like a high-tech space cruiser from a sci-fi flm. I’m not disagreeing. Buried in many ancient religious texts (the book of Ezekiel in the Bible for instance) and art are often conceptual understandings of scientific things we’re still at the edge of realizing today. It’s why so many physicists, cosmologists, engineers, artists, and scientists like reading ancient texts. There’s a heck of a lot in there.

Tibetan mandala of the 6 chakravarti. Note all 6 are within wheels. Lots and lots of wheels within wheels here.

Coming back to WT, the wish-fulfilling wheel. It’s really undeniable she’s been placed in a wheel by our artist. The 5 rings around her person are not, I don’t think, to be read as a wheel. They may represent the 5 elements of the natural world, over which she has power. If I asked you to name the color and the element it means, being from the West you would likely say:

  • Yellow = …gold? metal (actually in China: earth; actually in India, Sanskrit: earth)
  • Green = earth (wood; air)
  • Blue = water (water; space)
  • Red = fire (fire; fire)
  • White = air (metal; water)

They may also represent directions, aka 4 corners of the world, the universe. The way it’s seen in Tibetan Buddhism is the 5 female Buddhas, who are consorts of 5 Buddhas and these 5 Buddhas/colors also represent directions:

  • Yellow = Water (Mamaki, consort of Ratnasambhava; South)
  • Green = Air/wind (Green Tara, consort of Amoghasiddhi; North)
  • Blue = Earth (Buddhalochana, consort of Akoshbhya; the motionless center of the universe)
  • Red = Fire (Pandaravasini, consort of Amitabha; West)
  • White = Space (White Tara, consort of Vairochana; East)

It’s entirely possible there’s also a “secret” meaning going on in the inner rings (and the outer rings too) which we haven’t talked about. If you look closely, there is a thin black line just outside the dark blue line. It’s on the inner rings and the outer rings. Typically on a mandala the rings are, reading from outside to inside, flames, vajras, then lotus petals.

Flames, vajras, petals. Sand mandala at the Frist Art Museum 2017. Mandala of Avalokiteshvara.

A black line is sometimes found between the flame line and the vajra line. It represents an ash (cremation) line. When bad things try to enter the sacred world of the mandala, from the material world, the outer flames of the mandala burn it into black ash. And even that purified ash is locked out of the deity’s realm by the adamantine blue cosmic vajra line.

The blue vajra line, or vajra circle, acts like an all-encompassing shield. It designates/creates the “safe space” within which all negative forces are kept away from the “residence” of the deity. Typically there’s a ring of lotus petals (64) after the vajra line. But our 64 leaf/petals are stuck around the WT’s inner rings. And even that’s not as unusual as the fact our WT has the charnel and vajra line combo a second time, on the inner rings. What might this mean?

I think we could be talking about two realms/levels of protection. A WT protected realm apart from the real world, but also apart from WT’s own pure realm. An intermediary place, a world under her care. Possibly the monastic world. This would explain the monks on a boat on the lake within the Pure Realm. But perhaps also, equally, given the second boat with blue everyday fisherman next to the monks’ boat, a realm in which WT’s average Tibetan devotee practitioners also reside.

There may also be an inner meaning to the inner rings, which lie within the 64 leaves, ie, the sacred space. If the yellow (south) and green (north) lines are outside the second charnel line, it might be saying “yes, Indian Buddhism, Monglian Buddhism, good” but less pure. Once inside the second charnel line we have the red (west/Tibet- possibly nyingma) and the white (east/Chinese- possibly Zen/chan) Buddhism. The line of pure sky between the red and white lines can be read as the pure awareness that are central to the highest teachings of Dzogchen/Mahamudra and Zen.

White Tara Practice: Resources - KTD
The Protection Wheel of White Tara painted on the interior of the cupola of a shrine room by master artist Tinley Chojor as instructed by the 16th Karmapa and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. (Kagyu.org)

Back to WT and the wheel. The word “wheel” is right in her title. White Tara, the wish-fulfilling wheel. Is she the chakraratnaya, the vehicle, that gets us to enlightenment? Possibly. If you read some of the more advanced sadhana‘s, there’s a lot going on with wheels there.

Chakravartin is a unique word. Figuratively it’s meaning is “whose wheels are moving,” in the sense of “whose chariot is rolling everywhere without obstruction.” (Sounds a lot like the eyes of God, 2 Chronicles 16:9.) It can also be interpreted as instrumental: “through whom the wheel is moving.” And WT sadhanas tend to feature wheels moving through her.

The Tibetan word translates as “monarch who controls by means of a wheel.” This makes me think the artist is trying to say WT is a chakravarti, and through her (as a yidam) the unobstructed wheel moves/turns and we can gain a long life, remove obstructions, and attain enlightenment. She’s the virtuous peaceful royal owner/master of a remarkable vehicle, and she can take you anywhere.

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Me. Lazy Nyingma. Stickers available.

This is just my take on it. You don’t have to accept it. You probably shouldn’t. I’m a Christian, a lazy Nyingma with Rime bent, and my Root Lama literally died on the lam, a criminal outcast and a public disgrace. If you’re really interested, please, seek out a fully qualified, lineage-approved lama, or read a book on the matter — preferably by a Kagyu or a Sakya or Gelug.

I listen to many different teachers. It’s okay for people to tell me what they think, it’s just not okay for people to tell me what to think. I’ll make up my own mind, thanks. And that’s probably why I was drawn to Nyingma. You have to be a little bit crazy, independent, artistic, or outside the box. If that’s not you, that’s great too. There’s a vajrayana that’s just right for you.

Ok, I’m going to “wheel back” to the three natural things in the chakravartin offering pile: Elephant tusk, unicorn tusk, and coral. Elephant tusk clearly speaks to a powerful army, but also to a culture that appreciates the arts, literature, and scientific knowledge. Ivory as a substrate for art, writing, medicine are all part and parcel of Asian culture.

The unicorn tusk is actually a deer antler. Deer antler had medicinal uses – mainly as an aid to male virility. Deer antler is protective, for the deer. It also falls off and regrows, which makes it a symbol of regeneration or immortality. You can also use antler the way you use tusk, in art. People ask how did a deer antler became associated with unicorns. I’ll show you.

File:Mounted samurai showing uma yoroi or bagai (horse armor) 10.jpg
This is a deer antler attached to horse armor. Unicorn.

When you look on the WT’s offerings, you see that weird coat-hook shape to the unicorn horn is not weird at all. It’s a single deer antler, which has a shorter bottom part and a longer top part. As time passed, and global trade expanded, modern artists began to think the horn was a rhino horn because they no longer understood what they were looking at on the old thangkas.

Please, stop killing rhinos and elephants! Rhino horn has no place on a Tibetan thangka. Rhino horns belong on living rhinos. Period. As for elephants? Destroying an elephant in the ancient world was like destroying the best tractor, best tank, best auto you ever could own. They would never kill an elephant. Kill an elephant just for it’s ivory?! Dear God, how heartless and utterly stupid could such a person be?

Moving on to the red or precious coral. The coral is said to be a wheel, and you might say it’s the wheel of a chakravarti king’s chariots. Chariot wheels get pretty red in bloody battles. Sure, why not? It’s among the chakrvartin insignia after all. But in this WT thangka, the artist when out of his/her way to stylize the coral to be a swastika. This is an ancient symbol for wheel-like things, and nothing to do with nazis.

Coral Reef Image Bank
This is the only place coral belongs. Don’t buy coral.

It’s use here is as a representation. In Indian belief, it represents the sun, which is a red, eternal, chakra. Chinese Daoists would see it as a symbol of eternity. Bonpo would view it and think eternal and unchanging. For Tibetan Buddhists it’s a symbol for the earth, eternally stable and indestructible. In all views, it’s a shorthand for eternal. So it makes sense on a WT thangka.

Alright, let’s talk some other objects. The two conch shells, the mirror, the general’s cloud scepter and the red and black cintamani. We’ll start with the right turning white conch shells. The “spiritual” conch is always right turning. Natural conch turns left. An auspicious blast of a conch (a traditional battle horn) is said to scare off evil spirits and creatures, and avert disasters. Makes sense, you see a bear, make a loud noise, it runs away.

Buddhists think of the conch as a symbol of proclaiming the dharma. One of 32 signs of Buddha’s body is his conch-like voice, ie it really carries, booming through the all directions of space. In iconography, you see 3 curved conch-like lines on his throat to indicate this. If you look on the WT thangka, you’ll see she has such lines on her throat, too.

What I love about these are the obvious attached amplifiers. Awesome. Garudashop.com

I don’t know why there are 2 conch shown on the thangka here. One proclaiming wisdom, one scaring off evil? But I can tell you white conch are associated with the Brahmin (priestly) cast in Hinduism. The highest caste, responsible for teaching and maintaining sacred knowledge. And that the conch is regarded as 1 of the 8 auspicious symbols in Tibet.

The mirror (melong) is a standard in Buddhist iconography. Symbol of emptiness, or pure awareness, reflecting everything but attached to nothing. But in Tibet mirrors are also used for divination and diagnosing and treating illnesses. HH the Dalai Lama has an oracle who uses a mirror, and wears it as breastplate.

The office of the Dalai Lama has had an oracle attached (the Nechung Oracle) since the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (yep, a Nyingma), started the tradition in the 17th century. And in case you forgot, his stint in office is overlaps the possible time frame of this WT thangka’s creation.

Nechung Oracle in 2014, wearing divination mirror.

The melong aren’t standard mirrors. They’re convex. It often has a gold back with an inscribed circle and what looks like 4 dots within the circle. The 4 dots represent the 4 directions. The convex, external side, reflects bad energy and bad spirits away from the wearer, dispersing them in the 4 directions. Ingenious. The concave side faces the wearer’s body and this allows positive energy to be focused into the body.

It’s also said the melong can ‘house’ the spirits and deities the practitioner uses. So when you see a melong, in the offering pile, and you see the convex (dots) side pointed at the viewer, it means the deity is facing the mirror’s concave side. Any negative energy coming from you is being deflected away. Any good energy from the yidam is being focused back on her.

But WT is sitting in front of a moon disc, and the moon reflects light, so that it bounces back. Therefore, just as the sun’s light reflects off the moon towards earth, all of the WT’s good energy is blown back onto her and the moon behind her, which throws it all forward directly to you, the viewer. Clever science. I love this kind of nerdy stuff!

Melong Mirrors | Traditional Tibetan Mirrors – Garuda Trading
Melong pendant. garudashop.com

In traditional Tibetan medical usage, the reflection of the sick person is used in diagnosis and treatment. Water can be poured over the reflection of the person (or object) reflected in the mirror as a blessing or purification. Also water may be placed within it for blessing. (Yep, like holy water in a font. I went there.) I really can’t tell if this is a plain mirror (Buddhist reference) or a melong (more Bon). Either could work. I personally think it’s a melong.

Okay, now we come to those little black and red round balls that you might have mistaken for fruit. They’re philosopher stones or cintamani. They denote wisdom, compassion, and virtue. Thankgas usually use multicolor cintamani, like Amitabha’s pile above. For some reason, this artist went black and red. I suspect I know why.

Cintamnai are thought to originally be bits of meteorites, so black and red does make some sense. But “realism” is not the reason. It’s about hats. And politics. In Tibetan Buddhism, like Catholicism, men like their unusual, colorful hats. You can see one type of hat on the conch-blowing men above. You can read about the multiplicity of hats here on the Himalayan Art website.

The Excellent Path to Enlightenment: Oral Teachings on the Root Text of  Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Padmakara Translation  Group: 9781559390644: Amazon.com: Books
Red hat, Nyingma, Dzogchen master. Great book.

In the case of this WT thangka, there are only red and back cintamani because Nyingma are the Red Hat sect, and Sakya and Kagyu are the Black Hat sects. The fact that Rime is a reaction against the Gelug, the Yellow Hat sect, is why the offering pile is devoid of yellow cintamini, or even any yellow tinged color like orange or green. It’s an artistic way of saying pure Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu only, no Gelug here. (Damn, that’s cold.)

There are also exactly 9 cintamani of each color. The 9 yanas are a path to enlightenment within the Nyingma tradition. I expect that the artist used 9 red ones to convey the nine yanas. As for the 9 black? Possibly the artist was trying to saying “the black hat teaching are also equally a full path to enlightenment.”

The top set of cintamani, known as the “three jewels.” (People love the number 3, also.) They represent the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That is the Buddha, his noble teachings, and all the buddhist travelers walking the path with you. You’ll notice the three jewels have flames surrounding them. The flames are symbolic of the burning away of false desires and ignorance, giving way to enlightenment.

You’ll also notice they look really phallic. I can’t say there’s not an association here. Read the linked article. So, I’d also like to pause here to point up that the phallus-friendly lama saint of Bhutan, actually came from Tibet. I’d also bet money this lama saint was a Nyingma. Just saying.

Buddhist Altar Table 310-36 camels
It’s the little gold cloud bottom left is a trefoil. The flaming “jewels” are self explanatory. baronet4tibet.com

When you read the article link, remember this was over 5 centuries ago but Tibetan Buddhism hasn’t really changed. Tantra exists to enlighten you. But there’s a fragile cultural-religious line between “ancient means of freeing people of useless or outmoded ways of thinking and conventions” and modern abuse. If modern western students and teachers aren’t really clear about their intentions and actions…. those students get hurt, their teachers end up criminals on the lam, and needless disgrace befalls the precious dharma.

Okay, back to the offerings. The very top jewel in the flaming triple-gem group is supposed to be the chakravartin’s super powerful 8-faceted jewel. Each facet implies a different magical property of the jewel. The properties are:

  • 1) It cools when the days are hot,
  • 2) warms when the days are cold,
  • 3) illuminates the darkness of night, so luminous it can light the path of his army by night)
  • 4) causes rain to fall or a spring to appear when one is thirsty,
  • 5) it brings to fruition what ever the bearer desires,
  • 6) it heals emotional afflictions,
  • 7) cures all of the diseases of those who are in its range of its light and
  • 8) lastly, prevents untimely death as in parents passing on before children.

In the WT thangka, the flaming jewels seem to arise out of a vase or bowl. No, I don’t think that the bowl is a sexual reference to a woman, but you never know. Could be. I can’t for sure say it’s not.

BBC Weather Symbols | Mike Afford Media
Kinda like this.

Finally we have the general’s insignia aka the trefoil (which looks like one of those British weather report cloud). The insignia, which you can see on the Amitabha thangka, looks like two epaulets, one white, one gold. Actually, they go on the general’s helmet, front and center. Often crossed, like 4 petal flower (or yeah, a swastika). It’s a common symbol used in modern thangka for the general’s insignia.

However, this is an old WT thangka we’re working with and much like what happened with the unicorn horn changing over time into the rhino horn because the knowledge base was lost or misunderstood, there’s a bit of that going on here too. Today, the trefoil is seen as a Tibetan form of a vajra (scepter), and a riff on the Chinese ruyi (literally “as you wish”) or cloud scepter.

However, what it really is a fungus (mushroom). In ancient China, where this symbol came from, it’s the fungus of immortality. It shows up all over Chinese art, and art featuring traditional Chinese gods and goddess. The name of the fungus ruyi is a homophone that means “as you wish” or “according to your heart’s desire.” When you see this symbol with other symbols, such as a bat for long life, it means, “May you be granted long life.”

High Quality Chinese Sword "RuYi Jian" Folded Damascus Steel Blade Sharp  Copper Fitting|Swords| - AliExpress
This is a classic traditional style ruyi jian (sword). About 31″ total, $275 if you want it.

The ruyi (of which the fungus is only a homophone) is actually a traditional Chinese two-edged short jian, sword. The blade is around 21 inches. The ruyi fungus is placed the sword hilt for the meaning – “may your wish to kill all your enemies” happen. It’s a close quarters, hack and stab, weapon. I’ve also heard this type of sword called “The General’s Friend.” The Chinese god of war carries one.

In other words, the trefoil’s meaning is deeply military, not monarchy. It’s use on the old thangka is as the general’s insignia. This is why there are no epaulet-like things shown. Symbols have the meaning a group imputes to it. Ours is a Chinese-influenced artist using symbols in a Chinese way. Modern people interpret the trefoil as the triple gem or a vajra scepter. And that’s ok. It’s just not what’s going on here in this thangka, given its context.

Even if you viewed the trefoil as a cut down monarch’s scepter. There’s an implication of authority, but it’s cut down. It’s not full ruler status, which still makes the trefoil perfect to use for a general. And let’s not forget that for a long time in Ancient China, rulership was passed between warlord generals, who were not really kings or emperors.

Pair of ruyi scepters.jpg
Chinese ruyi scepters. The fungus of immortality (cloud form) is at the end. It’s just a stylized short sword.

Not to get into the weeds about clouds again but the development of the ruyi cloud scepter, which has the “as you wish” meaning, lines up with a general’s wishes, which are the same as a ruler’s, to be obeyed and granted. No surprise that over time, a warlord general’s short ruyi sword became stylized into a scepter for decidedly not war-lordy kings who wanted to “look tough.”

Finally, I want to bring up the artist’s use of size, in this case scale and quantity, as a means of expressing the artist’s intended meaning. When you look at the overall offering pile, it stands out that the flaming jewels and the 2 conch shells are huge, compared to say the elephant and unicorn tusks. I’d say the same goes for the vast central pile of only read and black cintamani.

It seems the artist wishes to de-emphasize the wrathful (the military items) as WT is a peaceful deity. But increase emphasis on the healing/teaching items and their meaning. And this makes sense on a WT mandala, which is a source of teaching and healing.

Thee emphasis reads to me,

  • 1) “Hey, listen! Hey, look!” (the large conches), “I’m presenting you the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha” (the flaming triple-gem).
  • 2) “Right here are all the pure wisdom teachings of the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu in one place/practice” (the pile of black and red cintamani).
  • 3) And, “This all wise, all powerful, compassionate Buddha (the 7 chakravartin insignia) is here to dispel evil influences and illness, and realise your Buddha nature” (coral and melong).

Or to put in more of a modern way…..

Courtesy of the SO – this Friday’s Love Song.

This entry was posted on November 20, 2020.

Meeting Buddha in the Code

Baby squirrel riding on mother's back. | Smithsonian Photo Contest |  Smithsonian Magazine
Geewhiz, Mum, I’m too tired to climb home. Carry me? (WT peaceful mode) Smithsonian.

This week I wandered through the backyard, placing nuts and seeds at various “stations” for the birds and squirrels and wondered if they saw me as a god. Every day, they wait for the patio curtains to open. Then the yard comes alive with squirrels bouncing through tree limbs, titmice, jays, and wrens singing from the bushes, crows squawking on the fence, and assorted juncos and doves crashing ungracefully onto the lawn.

Then they wait for the sacred cat to be released. Minka always goes out first, while I tend to other things. They find her completely innocuous, which she is. She always goes to the side fence to look for the neighbor cat, to chat. All the wildlife then wait for me to appear. Sometimes I might have to make an early call, and find a young squirrel knocking with trepidation on the patio door, much to her mother’s chagrin.

I always appear in my same hat, workshirt and gumboots, carry my same bowls, and place things in the same spots on the “wish-fulfilling trees” before grasping the “great teal snake” (the hose) and causing water to gush forth from its mouth into birdbaths and bowls. The squirrels are wary, and dash up the trees out of reach, but they don’t fear me. Young creatures of all sort are deposited in the yard like a sort of nursery so mums might go about their business.

Sam's Grilled Cheese, and The Versatile Blogger - Will Cook For Friends
There are many ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich. (1993, Benny & Joon)

Sometimes the crows get pushy and I have to appear in my “wrathful aspect,” ie, without my hat, waving the crows off with a stern look and my workshirt. I wonder how much like a rabbit or alligator lizard I must seem to God. Or how skewed my view of God — who biblically speaking is not even male or singular — must be. It was coming in from such heavenly ponderings, that I found my SO calling and myself quickly returned to more earthly thoughts.

A month from today, I will be home again, post-quarantine, and in his arms! I asked him to get me some Clayboard (by Ampersand). It’s said Clayboard allows acrylics to dry matte not glossy. I thought about all the other options, hot press illustration board and inks, vellum paper and gouaches, even pastels on pastel paper (maybe someday I’ll try it)…but at the end of the day, it’s going to get experimental.

I’d like to use Chromacolour paint. It’s probably the only Western paint that has the same qualities and range of use traditional Tibetan paint does. But it’s from the UK, and I’m not sure if I can get it. Tibetan paint is not Western paint, just as Tibetan grounds are not Western grounds. In Tibet they use distemper. I could make my own distemper paints, but no. Just no.

😲 Astonished Face Emoji
Oh …. my…..God! Distemper!

Inks could certainly work, but they have a less thankga feeling. Gouaches are used a lot in the West for thangkas, but they don’t thin that well. Pastels probably give the most “distemper” quality finish. But long term, it’d be problematic. Pigment rich color pencils such as Prismacolors, could work too. If you’re interested in thangka painting and want to take an online class, Carmen Mesink of the Netherlands does them.

I sent my tracing files up north this week so the SO could print them off at scale. Saves me carrying them around. I figure it might take a month or two to make all the pesky design decisions. I have to rough out about 7 different background corner mockups at this point. Ahg! But patience is a virtue.

In babbling on about mockups and hidden borders to the SO, there came a pause in the conversation. He said something about his mother poking around in my studio and finding a large self-portrait of “an unusual nature.” I knew where this was going.

Betty Grable, World War II Pin-up, 1943 Poster by Everett
Betty Grable, 1940s actress and pin-up girl. (1943)

Just for a lark, it’s not finished yet, but it’s on my to do list, I was painting myself as Betty Grable in her famous poster. You know, as one does. A little risque memento for the SO to have, while I’m away in future. Because given Covid-Suck-It-19, I’m going to be away much of 2021.

I figured he could hang it on the back of our bedroom door and look at it during the long lonely nights when I’m not there. As GI’s past have done with Betty. Extra points if you noticed Betty’s sexy little gold anklet.

I said: Did you see it? He said: No, I didn’t. I said: Good. It’s not finished yet. He said: Valentine’s Day? I said: Yes, you can do an at-length comparison then. He said: Okay. Then he rang off and sent me this video below.

So moving on … back?… over?… to my WT project. Today I’m taking you on a walk through more stuff hidden in plain sight and I’m going to haver (Scottish word) about mountains and flowers. Put your good boots on, it’s a long walk. But not 1000 miles, and eventually we will fall down at WT’s door. I promise.

Last week I was talking about Zen influence. I’m sure some of you were thinking, “No, sorry. I just can’t see it.” That’s just it, I think you can see it. I think we’re meant to see it. The artist built it into the picture, in a kind of code. You just have to know what you’re looking at. No, this is not like QAnon. The artist meant the people looking at her/his work to fully, clearly understand what was being shown.

So, last week I mentioned the Pure Land and how the artist might have riffed on the hills and waters of Yamdrok Lake. And I still think that’s a valid way to see this work. But this week let’s start by hiking ourselves into WT’s Pure Land and counting the mountain peaks that are there. So stroll on through, do a survey, and let me know what you get.

Take a peek at the peaks.

If you said 8 peaks, you’d be forgiven. But what about the peak you can’t see that rises behind White Tara, only the side slopes of which we can see? In reality, there are 9 peaks. They’re sacred peaks. Not unlike Christianity, which also has sacred peaks: Mt Sinai, Mt Carmel, Mt of Olives, Temple Mount, Golgotha/Skull Hill, etc.

In Chinese culture, there are 9 sacred peaks: 5 Daoist and 4 Buddhist. The tallest peak is Emei Shan, home to the top Zen temple in Western China. Emei Shan represents the West. It’s the western most peak, and even at 3,100 meters (10,000 ft) it’s still only a foothill of the chain of high mountains flowing west into Tibet. There’s been a Buddhist temple on Emei Shan since the first century CE.

Emei Shan is regarded as the “home” of Samantabhadra. I’m not going further into the weeds here (but Samantabhadra is an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism in general and the Nyingma school in particular). What’s important here is, when you look at WT, is that you’re looking West at Emei Shan, toward Tibet, and the home of Samantabhadra. But remember too, that WT, the Chinese princess, is looking East, to her homeland.

I don’t know why an artist from Tibet would bother to put the 9 sacred peaks of China in a thangka, and paint them in traditional Chinese painting style and color and manner, and have you the viewer looking at WT, knowing right behind her heart was Mt Emei, the Zen center, unless he/she was trained by a Chinese artist and understood Zen and was making a statement about Zen-Vajrayana crossover.

Just saying.

Cumulus congestus cloud.jpg
Cumulus congestus.

Alright, while we’re up here, let’s take a walk in the clouds. We have cumulus congestus on the north (right) and south (left) sides peaking up from behind the mountains. These clouds are found up to around 6,000m (20,000 ft) so they’re common in Tibet. They tend to occur in an unstable atmosphere where a lot of atmospheric convection is going on. In other words, when your mind is not still, you’re unstable, and stuff come up.

From this development stage, they get enormously bigger, the mature stage, and way more unstable, till at last they blow up in a spectacular display of lightening, hail, and downpours. At which point, they’re energy is spent and they dissipate. Fascinating, right? Sure, but what do they mean? Well, I think there’s an obvious meaning, no matter how big and loud and spectacular, ultimately they vanish. Because they too were empty.

But in Buddhism clouds are replete with meaning. The most common is that clouds, however big and powerful, are just passing, and in their passing they obscuring the pure sky. But the pure sky is still there. So clouds are often a metaphor for the clear awareness which remains untouched and intact despite the passing clouds. It’s similar to the oft-used Buddhist mirror metaphor.

Buddhist Symbols on Tibetan furniture
Tibetan style clouds. See the tails?

Zen talks about drifting clouds, and flowing water. This is a lesson on attachment and impermanence. And we see this lesson graphically (and talked about it last week) with the 3 clouds drifting on the far horizon of WT’s flowing lake. In China these large thunderheads are considered “auspicious.” They represent heaven and have an association with good fortune (a shower of luck?).

Whoever painted this WT thangka chose to use Chinese-style clouds. And now I’m going to get really arty and specific. If you look very carefully at the clouds, they are tinted a pale blue violet with a light gold edge. You might be tempted to think, water damage. Nope. Intention. This is a T’ang period (c 900 CE) style of cloud painting called chin pi shan shui (gold, and blue-and-green landscape painting).

You can read about it in the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, (pg 218) first published in 1679, with a complete edition published in 1701, and a Shanghai edition in 1887. It was a popular book. 20 editions. I’m sure any artist coming from China would have known about it, seen it, used it or owned it. Including whoever created this WT thangka. I imagine it’s been kicking around Tibet since its first print run.

You can buy it still, in English, on amazon.

What I don’t see in this WT thangka are Tibetan style clouds, which are beautiful, but look stylistically and colorwise very different. Tibetan clouds always have tails to indicate they are fast moving. Sometimes billowing clouds are used in Tibetan art as symbolic of Mahamudra: the union of compassion and wisdom — the ultimate realization of one’s true nature. 

Mahamudra is a Kagyu teaching. Simplifying greatly here, Mahamudra is to the Kagyu, what Dzogchen is to the Nyingma. Different name, same thing. I think, given we are talking about art found at a Rime center, at a Sakya monastery, where there was also a strong Kagyu presence, this type of billowing Chinese cloud should be no great surprise.

What are they supposed to symbolize though? Perhaps one thing or many things, depending on who looks at it.

A lotus stands above the water. A waterlily does not.

Coming back to earth now to do a little botanical research — heads out of the clouds please! Just like Christianity has botanical references: the lily, the rose, the palm branch, etc., so does Buddhism. There are 5 major flowers you might see on a Tibetan Buddhist thangka.

  • The Sacred Lotus (100% real but shown with some mythic attributes),
  • the Ashoka (100% mythical),
  • the Champaka (100% real),
  • the Utpala (100% real or 100% mythical, but often shown with peony or lotus flowers’ stylistic elements), and
  • the Datura (100% real).

I’ll start with the sacred lotus, a real plant, Nelumbo nucifera. They call WT lotus-born, I’m sure you can see why. This means pure. WT is born of a white lotus. Lots of artists fail at the gate on this attribute. I’m sure there are some sadhanas out there that make this mistake as well. Life imitating the mistakes of art.

She sits on a petals-up lotus, which indicates she’s a peaceful deity, on a white moon cushion, which indicates skillful means or method. She is wisdom, seated on skilful means. In Tibetan Buddhism, women are wisdom, men are compassion/skillful means. It’s the reverse of Western thought where women are often deemed compassionate and men wise.

Amazon.com: Gifts Delight Laminated 36x24 inches Poster: Lotus Fruit Lotus  Plant Fruit Seed Nature Natural Flower Pod Flora Lake Water Botany Aquatic  Green: Posters & Prints
Lotus seed pod, from center of lotus. Edible!

Lotus flowers are truly amazing plants. Individual lotus plants have been documented to live over 1,000 years. They can even revive themselves after a long period of dormancy. A 1,300 year old lotus seed was successfully germinated. Needless to say, the lotus (and thus WT, who is sitting on a lotus seed head cushion) is associated with having a long life and also regeneration after a period of dormancy (illness).

Thousands of years ago, people in India noticed the lotus was self-cleaning. Today we understand the science of it, and call it the lotus effect. The lotus produces a coating that makes it hyperhydrophobic (super water repellant). Dirt and water don’t stick. They just roll off. And isn’t that what you want as a Buddhist? For all the dirt to roll off so there’s just pure mind?

In one of the more freaky lotus plant facts, their flowers thermo-regulate, like mammals. So, they make a good analogy for people and the mind. They grow out of the mud, all that mental junk, samsara, but nothing sticks to it. They only grow in quite, almost still, waters. So if you’re mind isn’t still, no stainless lotus blossom. When they rise up above the water, they turn to the sun (the dharma) and bloom, the flower becomes a metaphor for enlightenment.

For purposes of not chasing wild hares, Lotus like to grow in 1-8 ft of water, at temps of 73F to 81F, usually April to September is their growing season. They’re summer flowers. So as we look at the thangka scene, it’s a scene meant to convey a perpetual summer. The mountains are green, that lake is calm, the sky is blue, the thunderheads are rolling away. Perfect lotus/enlightenment conditions.

What you may not have noticed, if you’re not into botany, is that the lotus leaves are all wrong. In the real world, lotus leaves are round. The lotus leaves (and foliage) our artist uses, I think, are a stylistic thing. They are, botanically speaking, a bit of a cross between a peony (spring, beauty, wealth, talent, intelligence associations in China) leaf and a chrysanthemum (autumn, long life & health associations in China) leaf.

It’s a “sacred” lotus with a goddess on it, so it has to be in some way different from a real sacred lotus. In the leaves I guess is how the artist makes that distinction. But I think the artist may be trying to say something as well with this leaf choice and I’m just not as up to scratch on my “shrubby” Tibetan Buddhist iconography as I should be.

Lotus leaf, dumping water off.

If you look on either side of WT’s arms, you’ll see lotus flowers in the ring around her. Interestingly, these side lotuses are shown partly open, their centers can’t be seen. This usually is taken to mean mean enlightenment is beyond ordinary sight. Seen, but not seen. On the other hand, if WT herself is to be taken to be the center of the lotus….She is enlightenment, or a way to it.

Lotuses comes in different colors. The color matters. It signifies something. In this case, it’s a white lotus (even though it has touches of pink) and a white lotus represents mental purity and spiritual perfection. This lotus is also a reference to the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important to Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land School of thought.

Amitabha is at the center of Pure Land Buddhist thought, and you can read about it here. It’s an easy BBC read. I’m not taking you there. But you should go and know. He comes up a lot in WT thangkas.

Amitabha Buddha Practice — Palyul Theckchen Ling Monastery
Amitabha. Always shown with very red skin, and a blue alms bowl.

Leaving lotus land behind, take a peak at the flower directly above WT’s head. It’s a fictional flower called an ashoka. In Tibetan Buddhism there’s a trinity of holy flowers: lotus, ashoka, champaca. The ashoka is deeply associate with Amitabha (and with Amitabha — we’re circling back to the Pure Land, super popular with Chinese Buddhists) and a real-life king named Ashoka.

Ashoka was a great warrior that led his people to freedom and ultimately became their king. He was king over a vast and diverse empire. Unlike most kings, Ashoka put his people’s welfare and interests above his own. He promoted Buddhism but he insisted on religious tolerance, teaching his people that they could each learn from another’s religion. How Rime! How Enlightenment!

It’s said that when Amitabha heard about the deeds of Ashoka on behalf of liberating people, physically and spiritually, he wept a tear. That tear fell and sprouted into the ashoka flower. (Yes, lots of tears turning into things in Buddhism.) So when we see the ashoka flower, it’s a reference to Amitabha and to the possibility of using our power to attain spiritual freedom from things that enslave the soul.

Typical amulet. Etsy.com This one is red mahogany wood.

In some WT thangkas you’ll see a tiny red Amitabha painted up top in the center of WT’s crown. In this WT thangka, the artist subtly references Amitabha, and all that he means, by placing the akosha flower above her head. You’ll also see a little red square on the center of her necklace. That too is likely an Amitabha reference.

Small, carved red gemstone amulets of Amitabha placed in necklaces are still being made today. For the record, I think it’s unfair, possibly racist, to call these amulets. Catholic Christians call the same things “medals.” But you get what I mean, amulets/medals. It’s a human universal to carry talismans.

Money for nothing, I also have issues with saying Buddhists have mantras but Christians have prayers. The Hail Mary is a mantra. It’s a group of words repeated over and over. Jesus gave an example of how to pray in the Our Father. His followers today repeat it over and over. It’s become a mantra. It stopped being a prayer after Jesus said it.

And Jesus specifically said, “Don’t pray by repeating words/prayers over and over.” So…if you’re using the Lord’s Pray as a mantra, admit it to yourself, and use it as such. If you intend to pray to God, they way Jesus said you should, just let rip and pray from your heart.

Michelia - The Champa Tree
champaka flower.

Moving on to the large yellow-orange flowers in between the ashoka and the lotuses, on the outside of the inner rings, these are champaka (champaca, champ flowers). There are real champaca trees. It’s a good timber tree. The real flowers are very fragrant. The flowers are used to make incense. The myth says the champaca flowers are from a wish-fulfilling tree that confers love, compassion and beauty.

People will wear a champaca in their hair, but only one, because they have such a strong smell. If you look closely at White Tara’s hair band, at the very top center, you’ll see, that’s a champaca flower I think. I’m also going to point out, while I’m there, the grey spot in the middle of the flower was probably, maybe, gilded at one time.

I suspect, but I can’t prove it, that where you see grey-blue on her earring pendants, and her necklace, and that spot at the center of her hair champaka, all had gilt. If those spots were gilt, and one put a butter lamp in front of her, her face would light up. Gilding is used still today on thangka. I don’t know how to gild, but I might try to give it a go.

181 Purple Datura Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
This is a datura flower, a devil’s trumpet (not a brugmansia, angel’s trumpet)

Coming back to the inner ring, to the pink flowers between the lotuses and the ashoka, those mounded flowers are datura metel. This flower has been know in India for a long time, it’s called Hindu Datura sometimes. It arrived in India prior to the 4th century CE, even though it’s native to South America.

There’s been some discussion of how it ended up in India and China and everywhere, but we can only say humans moved it from point A to point B long before Western Europeans got around to naming it in 1753. Why would humans bother transporting it? Well, it does have hallucinogenic properties. Many religions used it, sparingly (because it will kill you, your pets, etc) for accessing the mind through visions, some of which could be terrifying.

Datura in Tibetan Buddhism is tied to wrathful deities. You’ve probably seen wrathful deities on thangkas. Think of them this way, you’re house is being broken into, do you want a lap dog Pekingese or lion-killing Chow- Chow with you? Same is true for your spiritual house. In vajrayana, your Pekingese can become a Chow-Chow. Like Bruce Wayne can be Batman.

Vajrakilaya - Wikipedia
This is Vajrakilaya, with his consort.

This Vajrakilaya above is a typical wrathful deity. Pretty scary. Look above his head and you’ll see Samantabhadra, the dark blue guy, in union with his consort. Vajarkilaya is thought of an aspect of Samatabhadra, a universal Buddha connected to Tibet.

Someday I may talk about tantra and sex, but not today! If you’re interested in art and tantra and meaning…you can read the Demystifying Tantric Sex post on the British Museum’s site. And check out the Conserving a Tibetan Thangka post too. I also recommend this article about the Tibetan use of human remains as ritual objects. (Don’t judge, fellow Christians. We drink the blood and eat the body of Christ!)

The British Museum’s show has had several write ups. I recommend them all, different perspectives are always helpful. The Art of Tantra. Tantra: from Enlightenment to Revolution review – shock and awe. Tantra at the British Museum, a review. And, The Occult’s Return to Art.

Now look below. This is Vajrasatta. It’s the exact same deity as Vajarkilaya, but this is his peaceful aspect. Vajrasatva practices are common to all of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and are used both to purify obscurations so students can progress beyond Ngondro practices. Vajrasatva practice is an essential element of Tibetan Buddhist practice.

A Short Vajrasattva Meditation | Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive
Vajrasattva

For a Christian comparison, you might think, Jesus the Good Shepherd is Jesus guy with the whip clearing the money changers out of the temple. You might see those two different pictures of Jesus and think, “That’s the same guy? Really?” Yeah, just different aspects. Depending on what you need, you might feel a connection to or need for one aspect over another. And that feeling or need might change over time.

In vajrayana Buddhism, WT has a wrathful aspect. It’s Palden Lhamo, the protectoress of Tibet. You can read about her on the link (awesome original Star Trek, Cpt. Kirk reference). There’s a lot of discussion about protector vs wrathful deity, it’s way over our heads. I’m going to simplify. I think the artist is using the datura flowers intentionally. He/she wants us thinking about WT as protector and subtly invokes the idea of Palden Lhamo.

Last week we talked about how the WT image, which uses the rainbow aureole, the hallmark of WT in her protector aspect, also has a violet ring to further emphasis this. And we talked about how WT was used for protection by fleeing Tibetans. Now this week we see here in the art, also, is the datura flower, connected to wrathful deities and protectors.

Whoa, Mum! I just said I needed a little help. (WT protector mode)

Just saying.

Green Tara’s blue utpala? Who can say.

Okay. Finally we come to the utpala. The flower, in WT’s left hand, is not a lotus, but an utpala flower. It’s a fictional flower, but it’s thought by some to be a waterlily, Nymphaeaceae. The uptala can have a few variations. Sometimes it’s blue, sometimes it’s pink. Different traditions use different colors and different Taras can be found pictured with different color utpala.

Most frequently, you see WT with a pink utpala, and Green Tara with a blue utpala. As time went on, many artists moved to having WT holding a white lotus. No idea why. Our artist here did not use a lotus. We know this because we can see the pointy petal lotus our artist uses in the WT’s ring. Here, our artist stylized the utpala to be peony-like. The leaves on the stem seem are very peony-like, not like the other vegetation our artist used.

I think, but it’s hard to see even on the light table, that this is a standard (for WT) 16-petal utpala. In many depictions there is, from the same stem in WT’s hand, a seed pod pointing toward Tara’s ear and a flower bud pointing up from the top stem, as well as the utpala flower full blown. This represents past, present, and future. I can just see those details in the image on the light table.

Best walking boots for women - Charmyposh Blog
Just admiring the view.

Well, my feet hurt. I’ll halt the trek here and we can make camp on the shores of this lovely lake for the week. Only 500 miles more to go. If you didn’t get today’s headliner pun…. It’s a Zen/Chan saying attributed to Master Linji, founder of the Rinzai sect. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Here’s what it means.

This entry was posted on November 13, 2020.

A Peek Behind the Seen

Thuenpha Phuenzhi” (The Four Harmonious Brothers) – Little Bhutan
The 4 Friends

In the Jataka Tales of the Buddha, there’s a story about 4 very different animals: a bird, a rabbit, a monkey and an elephant. In the story, the bird plants a seed, the rabbit waters it, the monkey fertilizes, and the elephant agrees to protect it. The seed grows into a beautiful tree, that provides, shade, shelter, and sustenance for all four.

It’s a tale of of the power of using your individual strengths, which are very different from others, but working together, to achieve a goal. In Bhutan, there is a belief is that wherever an image of the Four Friends is displayed, the ten virtues will increase, generating harmony and auspicious events. So, the image is everywhere. And, on the World Happiness Index? Bhutanese rate themselves as the world’s happiest people.

So taking a moment here to thank everyone that makes democracy tick in the United States. Thank you to everyone that voted, first time in your life or maybe the last; to all the pollworkers who gave of their time (some are still giving as we speak) and risked their very health and lives; and to all the election officials who worked so hard to make the process safe, transparent and fair – despite heavy headwinds.

Traditional granaries | Iberian Ways - travels in Spain and Portugal
Traditional Asturian raised grainery.

Thank you also to Hallmark, for doing a Psych marathon (which I taped and ran on election day). To Vuleta a Espana (Tour of Spain) race organizers and NBC Sports Network Bobke and Christian for a great escape every day. Nothing better than seeing the fall colors and virtually taking the northern and ancient pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago. And a special shout out to the people of Asturias, Cantabria, and northern Spain for hosting the race while under a total lockdown!

Leaving behind the beauty of Asturia and returning to the mountains of Bhutan and the 4 friends…. the story is also a hidden metaphor – about taking the path of Buddhism. It’s about how your practice starts as a seed, grows, develops, and eventually fruits, and the benefits of having a different teacher at each stage. Last week I got into how wrong devotion to a single teacher can lead to bad things. So I just wanted to point up, when you have many teachers (democracy), ie, go Rime, it can be a protection against falling into the grip of one abusive teacher (autocracy).

It’s especially when talking about vajrayana Buddhist, where the practices are very old and are intended to work skillfully with the mind. If you’re mind is unstable, advanced practices can tip your mind over instead of heal and enlighten. It’s why having a few good teachers who all emphasize a developing a sound foundation practice before tackling the advanced practices, is the safest route.

The Power Of The Subconscious | Birmingham Clinical Hypnotherapy
What’s seen is not always the whole scene.

Much like the iceberg above, artwork often has hidden depths where insight and meaning reside. In the case of the White Tara I’m working on, that is also true. For a trained practitioner that uses this image for a support to their meditation, it’s a powerful means of encountering the mind. This is part of why there are so many stories connected to this artwork about people having revelations from it.

In a good thangka, when a practitioner looks at it, it stirs the subtle energies of the mind. But what about non-Buddhists who hang a good thangka on their walls as fun art, you ask? Will it tip anyone’s mind over? Don’t worry. It definitely won’t. For you, it’s just art and it’s always good to surround yourself with art that uplifts you. Art is the kind of cheap, easy to access, positive energy everyone needs right now.

Life’s not easy. Surround yourself with good people and good art, good scenery and good books, good music and good wine, fill your mind with good things and your body with good food. It’s going to be long year, 2021, of dealing with Covid. Be kind to yourself and others. Remember, we’re all, as Ram Dass once said, just walking each other home.

An 18th c Tibetan White Tara.

Much of human existence is trial and error. That was made clear to me this week when we tried to titrate Gran’s meds down another step, and she had another episode. Massive BP spike, heart rate and O2 dropped, pee all over. Luckily, I was here and could give her additional BP meds and O2 right away. The episode passed and she got better. Trial and error.

I’ve begun to think that maybe Gran had the virus back in May, when all these weird things started happening, and this has all been post-covid kidney and heart damage she’s going through while her body tries to heal. It’s really hard to know with someone in their 90s. I have only so many tricks up my sleeve. I keep trying new ones. But at her age, she is both recovering and declining at the same time.

Life as trial and error was also made clear again, a day later, when I stupidly, early in the morning, tired from the evening before, sitting in the dark at my light table, made a dreadful error. I put ink on my WT original. Ooooops. I thought I was inking the transparent overlay. Nope. I had left the overlay under the actual picture, and failed to notice in.

To test color, cover original, on light table, with transparent paper and use markers.

So, I learned two things there. Don’t work while tired, and maybe I needed a second WT copy for my wall so I could use this copy for experimentation in the furtherance of doing the re-creation? I told WT I was sorry. I felt really bad. I asked Jesus for help in fixing my mistake. I was helped. Office Depot was offering 30% discount today on full color printing. I picked it up 12 hrs later. Trial and error.

Of course, then I found I’d used the old uncorrected img file and the wrong type of paper. I’m my haste to fix a mistake, I made more mistakes. I hadn’t really stopped to rest, and analyze what was wrong, then thought clearly about how to fix the problem. The fresh version was unsuitable for my initial purpose. So I had to have it redone again. Sigh.

When I reached the counter, again, the staff had “helpfully” trimmed away the white printer margins, making it unsuitable again. But, easy fix, they reprinted correctly it free of charge. We got there in the end. And after a long nap, I realised, I could learn some stuff from the crap copy and use it for a number of different tests I’ve yet to run.

This is how it looks when you put the overlay under the picture original on the light table.

All that to say, I aim for a goal, but the route can be circuitous, fortuitous, glorious or uproarious, but I try stuff, and I try to go with winds, because I just never know what’ll work out. It’s all good. As JFK once said, “Only those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” If you want to try White Tara practice, take the basic 3hr online empowerment class the Paramita Centre (Gelug, with Nyingma associations) in Ontario, Canada, is offering. It’s Sunday Nov 29.

Okay, so just as in other religions, such as Catholicism, sometimes artists are laypeople, sometimes they’re monks, nuns, priests/lamas. Sometimes an artwork is a commission and the patron wants something very specific. Sometimes the artwork is a generic for sale to anyone. Sometimes the art is created just so as to be meaningful to the artist.

And, just like other religions, including Catholicism, there can be various ways to depict the same subject. For example, Christians have Jesus the Good Shepherd, Jesus the Divine Mercy, Jesus Pantocrater, Jesus Infant of Prague, etc, etc, ad infinitum. All of them are truly Jesus. They’re just different versions or aspects and have different devotional practices attached to them.

What’s meaningful about Jesus to one believer, might not be to another. Each devotion or practice a Christian believer engages with, might come with a standardize way of seeing/presenting the object of devotion. That view is intentional. It means something. It’s meant to mean something to the learned/initiated observer. When a Buddhist thangka is used as a mediational aid, same thing.

Cefalu Christus Pantokrator cropped.jpg
This is Jesus Pantocrator. Note the use of the Trinity “mudra” and symbols like the unique style of the halo. Do you see the red AND blue lines. Do you know what they mean?

If your White Tara practice is that of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (a Nyingma, in office 1642-1682), you’d want a thangka that has White Tara, but also has a smaller Bhirkuti Tara (golden) before her at on her left and and a smaller Green Tara before her on her right. That’s the visualization practice you’re doing.

If you have no White Tara practice, just a general devotion, it really doesn’t matter what your thangka looks like so long as the WT has her main attributes. That is, she’s white and has 7 eyes, sits in the lotus position, holding an uptala flower (blue or pink even) in her left hand which is in a kartari mudra (refuge granting), while extending her right hand in the varada (compassion, wish-granting, supreme generosity) mudra.

You may see many, many versions of WT in the world. Just like you may see 1,000s of versions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All equally valid. I’m just going to focus on this particular WT I’m working on, that’s not associated with any specific practice (devotion, sadhana) that I know of. Even though I don’t know of a practice associated with it, I can tell you it has hidden features. Some hidden features you might have looked directly at, but didn’t really see.

4 white edges.

I’m going to start by pointing your attention to the 4 white original edges, something you’d never normally see, because they be hidden by a silk frame. But this WT isn’t in her frame anymore. The 4 white edges tell us this canvas wasn’t cut down from a larger rectangular thangka; the artist intended to make a square image from the start. That’s important to know.

All thangkas are painted as a whole. This means, an artist will have an entire design in mind before making a start. He/she chooses a canvas with that design in mind. And always, the artist begins with an ink outline of the entire design before any paint hits the canvas. So, because this artist chose a square canvas, one right away thinks: viewers should read this work as a “mandala” was the intention.

A deity can be presented in a mandala. Typically the deity will appear in the center. A ring of flame, in the traditional 5 colors, burns around the outside, to let you know it’s appearing by burning through samsara. Usually there’s a dark line, blue or black, called a vajra (thunderbolt) line. On the mandala below, the vajra line is blue, outlined in yellow, and it has tiny yellow vajras. Within the vajra line is 64 lotus petals.

Avinash Photography | Products | White Tara Sand Mandala
This is a typical round WT mandala thangka. It’s a circle, around a square, around a circle. The deity is placed dead center in a circle, within a square yantra.

These things are all standard on mandalas. Iconography has become a bit more homogeneous since the start of the 20th century. There can still be some variation in how things appear, because there are different schools of art and thought. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, before people could easily travel to see what other people were doing or had photos to pass around or access to the internet, people could get quite creative.

Sometimes mandalas are created with decorated corners, sometimes not. Sometimes round mandalas are set within rectangular (standard) thangka canvases instead of square ones. This mandala below is Mongolian and from the period of 1800-1900. It’s really just had its background divided in half, so there’s a blue sky and a green ground.

Mandala with thunderbolts, 1800–1900, Mongolia. Part of a card set.

This section of an 18th c mandala, below, on a rectangular thangka shows some of the creative license going on then. Note the rainbow rings are truly a rainbow. If you look very closely you can see that the flames have been traced over the rainbow, which is kind of a nice touch. I like it much better than the common “candy stripe” style ring of fire.

You’ll also probably notice there’s a lot of color variations to the rainbows. Some are missing green, some add in white but don’t have orange. It’s very rare to see any that have violet. I can’t tell you what it means, all these style differences, if it means anything or not. I imagine each style is attached to a school of thought or tradition. But, not that up on these things, so….it’s a mystery to me. Let’s face it, WT is a woman, and all women like to remain a bit of a mystery.

This is from an 17th or 18th century thangka.

Much of re-creating very old artworks is detective work. It’s lots of questions arising and lots of searching through lots of similar art works to try and find an answer, or a clue to an answer. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes you end up with more questions. Sigh. But if you really care, you have to put the legwork in. I care.

Moving in from the white border and out from the mandala ring for moment, let’s peak into the dark corners of the WT thangka. I found the 4 heavily painted corners an odd contrast to the beautifully executed image in the central area. My thinking as there was probably something under there, maybe like the Mongolian mandala, a “blue-green” landscape of green mountains and a sky filled with auspicious clouds.

So, I sat down, in the pitch black dark one night, placed WT on my light table and, a la Dr Frankenstein, flipped the switch. It was a longshot finding anything there. I’m working from a good resolution photo, but I don’t even have an original file. Sure enough, around most of the outer edge of the outer ring, there was… something. There was color, form, placement, design, definite intention of something. But it’s dicey what exactly that something is.

Here’s what you can see.

upper left corner
Upper right corner
Lower left
Lower right.

I’ve been looking at these corners for a couple weeks off and on, as I do color tests and checks to make sure I understand what is going on in each part of the design. I still can’t say for sure what I’m looking at. Maybe if I was a professional thangka painter, I’d understand from these remnants what I’m supposed to be seeing. But I’m not.

When I look at the flowers behind the first WT image at the start of this post I think…maybe flowers? But maybe it’s water damage? But water damage in the same spots around the ring only? That defies all odds. When I consider the mandala form, I think… could be a ring of small lotus petals with flames. It’d be weird, but the whole image is weird.

The other problem is right lower corner is considerably lighter when on the light table than the others. And its the corner that’s missing the most of its rim design. What do I infer from that? It looks like the 3 darker corners are darker because someone wanted to cover over the remaining visible design. Someone hid it under dark malachite and maybe dark red lac mixed with indigo. But why was the design missing from the 4th corner?

My feeling is, maybe there was an accident and the lower right corner was damaged. It got to close to a butter lamp and charred?

Butter Lamp offerings for beloved one – Mandalas Life
Looks really Catholic, doesn’t it? Tibetan Buddhist butter lamps. Available at mandalas.life

Any damaged area could have been lightly sanded, down to clean gesso and repainted afresh from there. It’s not rocket science. A fresh coat of malachite green, and then restoration of the design. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. Maybe once the new coat of green went on it stood out like sore thumb? So, instead the choice was made to slap dark paint on the three good corners and cover up all the remaining design?

Maybe the owner, probably a high lama, looked at the failed first attempt at matching and said, “This is a lesson in impermanence. Just paint out the whole outer edge. Then it will be a lesson in emptiness too.” And smiling, walked away from the disappointed young artist, reciting a mantra: Om tara tuttare ture soha. I can see that happening. It would forever be the Lama’s inside joke. No one would ever know in future….until me.

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.”

― W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
What it really takes to restore great art. Caution, these videos are addictive!

Don’t kid yourself. Restoration can be difficult work. Highly rewarding, but difficult. It’s a special skill set. It takes loads of training, knowledge and patience to restore a damage artwork. That someone decide to give up and paint out the 3 good corners should be no surprise. It’s the safest way to preserve the work and the primary focus of the art, the WT, and eliminate further risk of damage.

Coming back to WT, I wondered if her placement might give me another way to hunt for clues. It’s really odd that she’s not in the center. The only thankga I’ve seen that has the same off center deity pattern is a 19th century Gelug Amitayus sold at auction a couple years ago by Bonhams.

The catalog says: “The painting’s unusual composition … appears to have originated from Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tsang Province, Tibet.” So even the professionals consider the composition weird. And it’s not just that this thangka deity similarly off center, it also has some foliage up top, outside the outer ring. So I’m left wondering if the intent was to have a wish-fulfilling tree (kalpavrisha) around the WT.

A tree at the top would make sense, both narrative wise and based on what I can see is there. But there’s no way to tell. In re-creating this thangka, I now have to make decisions about adding back this extra ornamentation beyond the ring that is maybe flowers and foliage, maybe lotus and flame, that’s covered over or leaving it as is. So frustrating. Where is my Eye of Agamotto when I need it!?

the all-seeing eye of agamotto | Longbox Graveyard
Just want to point up, Stan Lee was clearly using Tibetan mandalas as a basis for his eye design.

In doing thankgas, there’s an order to doing things. Artists fill in all the earth and sky first. It’s a very traditional way of doing art. And very philosophical. What appeared first? The sky and the ground. And then things come out of the ground and the sky. The last thing to be painted is the deity’s eyes. At that point, the thangka is “alive” and finished. This means I really have to figure out if there is sky and ground in the corners, first.

After I get out of the corners…. I have figure out the the outer ring, or rings actually. On first glance, you might think there was one wide circular ring that’s kind of yellow. But if you look closely around the whole ring, you can see, it’s meant to be a rainbow. It’s red at the outermost edge. It was probably then orange, yellow, and white (maybe green) rings, then a black line and a blue ring.

Might the rainbow rim have had a flame design added to it? Is it weight in the lotus and flame direction? Doubtful. Flames are typical on mandalas and around wrathful deities. The WT doesn’t qualify as wrathful. There is a line of thought that the rainbow ring (sometimes it’s violet) indicates White Tara in her protector aspect but protectors aren’t wrathful deities. That’s a common mistake people make.  On the other hand, it may be a mandala.

Look really close at the gold rim.

Almost all deities sit on a moonseat throne, and behind them is usually a gold rimmed throne seatback. Most people don’t question that gold rim, but they should. The rim is made up of fire, stylized as makara tails. If you look at the image just above, from a thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha, you can see both the mandala flames (as makara tails) and lotus petals built into the design of the gold throne seatback. So the seatback, could be considered the outer edge of a mandala in and of itself. But then again, my WT doesn’t have that.

All this makes me wonder. Because my WT doesn’t have a traditional throne seatback, but is in a mandala, are there supposed to be flames and lotus petals beyond the rainbow ring? Is the design work that’s been covered actually flames and lotus petals because the artist wanted to express WT the protector? This isn’t really far fetched as an idea. WT practice is credited with having protected the many people who opted to make the dangerous journey out of Tibet in 1959. 

You might be thinking, uh, wasn’t WT Chinese? Doesn’t that make her a weird choice as the protector of Tibetan refugees fleeing the Chinese in the 1950s? Not really. It’s like asking someone today if Marie Antoinette is French. Sure, she is. The fact she was actually Austrian and that’s what got her beheaded doesn’t really come up now, 200 years on. We’re talking about WT having been resident in Tibet for 1,300 years prior to 1950. Tibetan Buddhists see her as a deeply Tibetan and Buddhist.

Yamdrok Yumtso (Yamdrok Lake) | Tibetpedia
Yamdrok, a sacred lake

In looking at the overall sky/land backdrop as painted by the artist, I want to point up the lake is possibly based on real life reference — the sacred lake of Yamdrok in Tibet. (Notice all the pray flags on the right side peak.) It does sort of look like Yamdrok. How Tibetan Buddhist artists imagine or are required to portray the Pure Land (Sukhavati, aka the Western Paradise), I don’t really know.

I do know Yamdrok has a number of important monasteries around it. I also know that monks are often crossing the lake by boat. I bring this up because there appears to be a lake boat (or two) on the lake (see close up “Lower right corner” above). They are intentional spots of boat blue and monk robe red. It’s a really nice touch.

It takes a really skilled, trained painter to put in lake boats, on a lake. A lesser trained artist wouldn’t know there’s a difference in the types of boats. It’s a very Chinese-style addition, and a very observational touch. It makes me think the artist lived around or near Yamdrok.

Tsukimi”: The Japanese Tradition of Autumn Moon Viewing | Nippon.com
Autumn moon watching. It’s never too late to start.

And, while we’re looking at the lake, take a peek at the 3 tiny cumulous clouds drifting on the water’s horizon line. Just an artful, beautiful little touch. Again, it’s very Chinese. It’s also very Zen. If you think White Tara, the Autumn Moon, you think of Zen master Dogen, and his autumn moon watching poetry. From 1249 CE.

The mountain filled with leafless trees
Crisp and clear on this autumn night;
The full moon floating gently above the cluster of roofs,
Having nothing to depend on,
And not clinging to any place;
Free, like steam rising from a full bowl of rice,
Effortless, as a fish swimming and splashing back and forth,
Like drifting clouds or flowing water.

When I think about all these touches, the style of the flowing ripples in the water, the exquisite asymmetry of the placement of mountains, drifting clouds, the shrubs and flowers around the rings, Tara herself, it’s really very Chinese-influenced in its aesthetics. And why not? China and Tibet did a lot of trade, had good relations, and shared Buddhist viewpoints dating back at least 1,000 years when this WT was painted.

Available on Amazon

What also strikes me is how Zen it all actually is, the whole picture. Something people fail to think about when considering the Green Tara/White Tara consorts is that it’s a physical representation of two schools of Buddhist thought, Indian and Chinese, coming together in Tibet.

Zen was brought to China by Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century. Zen spread to Korea in the 7th c, and reached Japan in the 12th c. When Wencheng married Tibet’s king, in the 7th c, she brought Zen with her. And Zen remained a popular teaching and practice in the royal courts. It also spread to the great monasteries where, unlike in other countries where Zen/Chan was the common teaching, in Tibet became the highest “secret teaching.”

When I talked about finding Dzogchen teachings attractive, after entering Buddhism from a Zen point but finding Zen practice too stripped down (okay, maybe too rigid), there’s a reason my brain made that connection. There was a connection. But that connection has only recently been understood by scholarship. To me Zen is like Cistercian, while Dzogchen is like Benedictine. They are versions of each other. In Tibet, the essential teachings (Zen) gained a series of preparatory practices (Dzogchen).

Zen Dogen Quotes. QuotesGram
Yep.

Ok, I digress. A bit. One other thing I want to point up, and this is very Zen, is the inner rings around the WT herself. Most people would not give them a second thought. “Oh, rings. Pretty.” In WT sadhanas, they always mention Tara surrounded by the 5 color rings. So, go back to the WT and count the rings around her.

Did you get 5 or did you get 6? There are 6. Because the artist did something really wonderful. He/she used the outer white edge of the moon for a white ring. In between the red ring and the white ring, there is now a ring. But what color is it? Why is it there? Can you guess?

If you look carefully, it’s supposed to be the color of the clouds on either side (I think) which is a wash of pale blue violet. But look more closely at the other sky background rings. Those rings have things in them, passing through them, like the mountain ridges. This sky cloud ring was left empty. And there, my friend, is “emptiness” a great Zen truth hidden in plain sight. Luminous emptiness, naked awareness.

H.E. Dagmo Kusho.

I think if someone wanted to make a case for this extra ring being violet in color, and not a “Zen” ring, I wouldn’t object. H.E. Dagmo Kusho, consort of His Holiness Dagchen Sakya Rinpoche, author or Princess in the Land of Snows, is known for the WT empowerment (Chintamani Chakra Tara – Tara, the Wish fulfilling Wheel) and she says the protector form of White Tara has with a violet or rainbow aureole. She would certainly know, having relied upon WT for her own precipitous walk to freedom.

So I don’t know, could be one or the other, or maybe both, or maybe neither. I’m repainting it the violet blue that was there and what people make of it is up to them.

Something to sing about: 'worst art restoration ever' inspires an opera |  Spain | The Guardian
Good intentions don’t make up for lack of knowledge, skill and training in art – or government. Ecco Homo, indeed.

The only thing that’s not quite up to scratch is some of the line work. A good artist has beautiful lines. Some major lines here (eg, on the mountains) are all one width, like they were made with a marker. This not great linework. It makes me think someone later on might have tried to “help” the picture.

I can imagine its beauty fading or flaking and someone trying to help save it, touching it up, but not quite getting it right. And that’s okay. Much like my “oops! I did it again” this week (yep, 0:47, in the flaming mandala). It all works out.

No question, what’s left for us today is beautiful. I appreciate and thank all the people who over the centuries who left their mark trying to do the right thing to preserve this WT. Because of them, this artwork still exists and still has a positive impact on many people’s lives every day.

I send good karma their way | Ripple Kindness Project
Couldn’t have said it better.
This entry was posted on November 6, 2020.