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.
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