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.

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