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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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,
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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…..