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)
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