Three more days and I’m out of quarantine, again. There are no big plans in the works, that I know of. Our provincial stay-at-home lockdown was extended till the Feast of the Epiphany. Because the Significant Other’s parents are considered part of our household bubble, we’ll continue to see them. La Mere is scheduled to come over to help me go through all our Christmas stuff, divy it up and decorate. First here then at theirs. I’m sure there will be outdoor light stringing, weather permitting, by the SO and Le Pape. I might make apple turnovers from the crop that came in from our tree this year.
Things are working out well in general. Le Pape is sleeping noon till 8pm, then he’s “at work or home.” La Mere was asked by her company to take some graveyard hours no one wanted, but it is perfect for someone on Pacific Time. They see “just enough” of each other, she said. And of course the SO and Le Pape escape to the office now and then, around 5 am, for necessary “stuff.” After which, they end up at having breakfast/dinner at ours, or with LaMere at hers. In her spare time, La Mere said she wanted me to help her convert all her special secret recipes into English, so I’d have them to cook for and teach to the SO, “in case.”
I interpret this request to mean a crash course in BeNeFranc (Not BeNeLux) cooking/baking will ensue at Chez La Mere’s. Fine by me. I’ll see my cats. After a long talk, our cats (along with the Peleton Bike and Mirror, thank God) were removed from my habitations to the SO’s folks’ new condo. They’re on loan, and living it up, at the new condo. They love having 24/7 awake “humans on tap” to nap with and zoom calls to roam through. I get daily proof of “their lux” life pics and Google Nest Hub calls. Still, it’s a 4th floor condo with a balcony. I worry. They’ll come home when La Mere and Le Pape go.
The SO is happy his folks opted to stay. Christmas with family. Rates of new cases are about the same in both places. But the SO remains convinced, long plane ride home post-US thanksgiving might have been the death of them. I can’t say I totally disagree. They may be here till Spring. Mutti says Gran is doing well, and Minka. She’s finding work/caregiving balance “tough but okay” since she rearranged her schedule. She’s a bit concerned by the laissez-faire attitude toward plague in So Cal, but she feels safe at home. Da and Hugh are both fine – though Christmas decorating got a bit excessive. No one died. But minor electrocution, and there’s a finger splint and a chimney repair involved.
Anyway, probably time to step up my WT practice on behalf of “others.” I talked about practice last week, but I thought I’d talk a little more about my practice this week. And keep in mind, I have been doing this awhile, and this is my practice. Your practice is going to be your practice. It’ll be different and that’s as it should be. Ok, that stipulated, I try to do a basic 20 minute sitting, follow the breath, meditation every day, and then WT practice. But sometimes it’s just 5 min. Or I don’t get to it at all. Brutal honestly here.
The first stage of the path is getting control of your brain by learning to calmly abide as thoughts arise. What does that mean? Imagine it’s very windy outside your house. You pull up a chair and sit looking out. You’re not out there in the storm, but you see it, you hear it, you’re vividly aware of it. That’s how I think of “follow the breath” mediation. It’s creating a safe calm space where you can realise you are not your thoughts, and you don’t have to lived ruled by every arising. A lot of people live 24/7 in a mental windstorm.
I’ve been doing this kind of meditation for years and years. But this is the beginning point, not the end. Once you have open space in your mind, you can begin to explore the nature of reality itself. Ultimately, looking for reality, is true end of any tradition you might follow. Have a read of John 17:20-23. It’s Jesus on “oneness” and interconnectedness (interdependence?) with God. John is a Gnostic gospel. It’s riddled with not very “hidden” meaning about the nature of God and reality that resonates strongly with Buddhism.
Many Gnostic texts deal with illusion and enlightenment, and not concepts of sin and repentance. It’s how Gnosticism came to be considered a heresy. It’s not. A lot of times, though, the most important or powerful teachings of a faith or philosophy, are the ones authorities fear most. So those ideas are persecuted, and to persist, they become hidden. They wrap themselves up in the current orthodoxy and wait. Nyingma teachings are basically a hidden form of Chan (Zen). Read the first couple preview chapters of Sam Van Schaik’s, Approaching the Great Perfection, if you want to know why and how they ended up hidden.
The use of yidams in mediation is to discover the nature of the mind. They have other purposes too, but when you dissolve the yidam, you are left with emptiness. It’s about allowing the mind to rest in that natural state, it’s essence. That’s the center of the Tootsie-pop. Listen to Patrul Rinpoche
The nature of mind, empty and clear in its essence,Self-Liberating Meditation: A Profound Method for Attaining Enlightenment according to the Ultimate Great Perfection
May dawn to everyone just as it dawns to a single person.
Ask those who know and it will become clear.
Consult the wise and understanding will follow.
Free yourself from any doubt, and practice.
White Tara is my yidam. Everyone has a wisdom deity they connect to. I do a WT practice every day. She’s a long life deity. In the beginning, I was young and didn’t want to die. But I did actually want to know reality, the essence of the mind too. Now I’m older, I’d be okay with dying now. But I’d still like to live longer to become enlightened. In the world of vajrayana, a yidam practice is maintained by, minimum, saying the mantra 21 times a day. If you can do a short practice, much better. Full practice, best. But …. life. So, yeah, sometimes WT mantra 21 times is it.
Do I have an altar? I have some IKEA shelving in my studio. One of them has an incense burner on it, a pair of candles, and tingsha bells. Sometimes I put flowers there too. But the only picture I have on that shelf is one of Jesus. Remember, I’m a Christian. Jesus is my guru/teacher/master. But I’m not against people having an altar loaded with pictures meaningful to them. You do you. For me, it’s a Christian altar. But it’s still really about the same things, remember the Gospel of John.
I have my WT thangka picture on a wall, behind the door, and I use it for practices. There are lots of different yidams in Buddhism. Pick one that’s right for you. If WT isn’t “the one,” but you feel unwell or fear the pandemic, I’ll give you a few others, fit for purpose, to check out further down. Do I practice a lot? Over time, I broke a mala that was strung on braided metal wire coated in plastic. Every time the bead was counted, it moved, and wore infinitesimally first on the plastic, then on the wire, till its metal strands wore and broke.
I have a wood mala I use a lot. It was rough wood when I got it. Over time and with use, rubbing by fingers, oil in the skin, the beads have turned smooth, dark, and glossy. It’s a good metaphor for the power of practice and the transformation of the mind. I’ve re-strung it twice. I still consider myself a lazy practitioner. I doubt any lama would call me a serious practitioner. Most would find me frustrating as hell.
My mala has counters placed 21 beads from the head/guru bead at the bottom. So if I’m doing mantra, I know when I hit 21. Most Tibetan Buddhists have these counters. The two I use without counters have built-in larger or different counter beads. I’m not big into counting these days.
Okay, back to practice. In practice, whatever practice I do, I try to be guided by the 3 Noble Principles of Longchenpa: “Begin with bodhichitta, do the main practice without concepts, conclude by dedicating the merit. These, together and complete, are the three vital supports for progressing on the path to liberation.”
He’s talking about the three things that make the difference between a practice being a means of temporary relaxation, peace, and bliss, and a practice being a powerful means of personal enlightenment and the enlightenment of others.
- Good in the beginning: arousing bodhichitta as a skilful means to ensure that your practice becomes a source of merit for the future.
- Good in the middle: maintaining the view of the nature of mind, the attitude of non-grasping free from conceptualization, that secures the practice so that the merit cannot be destroyed by circumstances.
- Good in the end: sealing the practice properly by dedicating the merit, which will ensure that it continually grows ever greater.
On a full practice, there would be nostril breathing first. That’s covering the left nostril with a finger and breathing in through the right, then covering the right nostril and blowing the air out the left nostril. Three time each side. And then what’s called vase breathing. Taking in a full breath, imagining the air is filled with light, then expelling it and imagining it as dark, filled with all the impurities that were in the body. Three times. (If you’re thinking “clearing the channels?” Yes.) Then I sit.
From a state of calm, I might do Calling the Lama from Afar, just once, and just the short bit: Lama khyeno, lama khyeno, drinchen tsawai, lama khyeno. It’s got many versions. I’m basically invoking and considering all my teachers, back to Padmasambhava. All the people who have patiently taught me over the years, decades. I say 21 vajra guru mantras. Then I sit.
After those preliminaries, it’s a “typical” WT. Take refuge (Refuge prayer). Generate bodhichitta (Four Immeasurables). I say the emptiness mantra, Om Svabhava Shuddo Sarva Dharma Svabhava Shuddo Ham. (Om, all dharmas are pure by nature; I am pure by nature.) Some “emptiness” mediation. Visualize White Tara. Recite mantra. Dissolve. Rest in view mediation. Close by dedicating the merit.
I do things based on how I was taught. It’s a very simple practice. You’ll find all kinds of practices, short, long, simple, complex, etc, with all sorts of additions, subtractions, or changes. None of it is right or wrong. It’s just different. There are many ways to practice effectively. It just depends on your tradition and what you’re practicing. All practices are effective if you do them, and if you do them with the right motivation.
If you really want to dazzling detail on WT practice, Healing and Self-Healing Through White Tara by Kyabje Gehlek Rimpoche (Gelug). 172 pgs. It’s an unrestricted text. For safety sake, only do a basic practice anyone can do or the practice you were given permission to do by your lama. I found the short teaching on “saying no” to a lama excellent, really relevant, and good for anyone heading into Tibetan Buddhism (But yes, he did a tiny bit of victim blaming. It was 1990s.).
If you’re thinking “damn, it’s all just too much.” I get it. Relax and consider the advice of Patrul Rinpoche
Use the time of your life. Develop your inner happiness. Recognize the impermanence of all outer pleasure. Live as a Yogi. Do your spiritual practices. Work as a Bodhisattva for a happy world. Become an Amitabha, a Buddha of love and light. Turn your world into the paradise Sukhavati, by unfolding the enlightenment energy within you. Search for a spiritual master, who knows the goal of enlightenment. Change your world into a place of grace, by understanding all the phenomena as spiritual exercises. Dedicate your actions to the benefit of all beings. Send all beings light. Live for the happiness of all beings. So you get the energy of light.Rinpoche, Patrul (2001), Die Worte meines vollendeten Lehrers, Arbor Verlag.
While some lamas are requesting simple WT practice for the pandemic, and sending out “micro” practices. Maybe White Tara just isn’t “you.” I get it. There’s a thing called the 21 Praises to Tara. Every Buddhist knows it. This praise details 21 special emanations of Tara, each with a special purview. (There’s even one for protection from zombies, seriously.) Maybe you’ll connect with the more kick-ass 20th Tara, RLG, Ritö Loma Gyönma? Her purview is pandemics.
In English her name is Noble Lady of Mountain Retreat, Clothed in Leaves, Who Removes Contagious Diseases. I think it means her mountain is clothed in leaves, but I’ve seen pictures that have her clothed in leaves. RLG’s picture is also way above. That’s her in traditional, Skaya style. She’s a slightly wrathful version of WT, said to be saffron peachy orange, because that’s how white skin looks when you’re slightly angry. One eye shoots out sun rays, blasting epidemics, the other sends out moon rays, healing people of all sickenss the epidemic caused.
You don’t need any initiation or empowerment to do RLG practice. Lamas area asking people to do it. If you want a short lung for RLG, here. A very simple practice can be found here: Tara of the Mountain Retreat, Clothed in Leaves. There’s even a short Facebook live online practice every Tue morning. And you can find loads of RLG resources, including:
(The Kagyu see RLG a little differently, and use her Sanskrit name and mantra. But it’s the same Tara, #20. This is a great example of how practices can be really different, yet essentially them same. I would call this version, super kick ass.)
If you don’t “connect” with either WT or RLG, there are other excellent choices during the current “foxhole” season. Maybe you need a male deity to connect with in this time of trouble? That’s cool. There is a form of Amitabha called Amitayus, Infinite Life. Click the link to find a short practice. anyone can do He is a popular long life deity and many WT images show Amitayus as a tiny red figure at her crown. He even features sometimes in her sadhanas. So, Amyitaus? Excellent choice.
And of course, there is Medicine Buddha. Click the link to find a short practice anyone can do. Medicine Buddha, he’s blue, has always been a go to for anyone sick. Probably more widely used than WT. Certainly more widely taught. He is perfect to invoke these days. Remember, you can practice any of these, WT, RLG, Amitayus, or Medicine Buddha, for yourself, a loved one who is ill, your community, or even for all those sentient beings who are sick and suffering the world.
Okay, on to happier things. I’m going to update you on my White Tara re-creation project. I’m continuing to work on it, but I have other projects to get on with while I’m home. Betty Grable for the Significant Other, re-organizing my kitchen for my personal sanity, etc, ad infinitum. Also, the re-creation needs a little fermentation time I think. Any kind of creative work eventually needs down time.
Wonderful artist and remarkable art educator Marshall Vandruff says:
One reason people have artist’s block is because they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period, creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again.Marshall Vandruff
I think he’s right. I don’t have artist’s block right now, but I don’t want it either. I need to spend more time sitting with White Tara in a non-art context, in it’s intended use context as a mediation support, if the art is ever to be “right.” I’m still discovering “hidden in plain sight” teachings. It’s just an amazing piece of religious art. Also, I have realizations while doing WT mediation. Such as, I realized I should add the “typical” general’s insignia to the offering pile. It might well have been there once. It’s hard to tell because the offering pile is messy. But given it’s 2020, and this is a new thangka, and people are used to seeing the insignia in a certain form now, I need to put that in to maintain the integrity of the message.
I did manage to finish some rough mock ups. For the “something” beyond the outer ring, I’ve come to accept that I can’t recreate what I don’t know was there in the first place. I’m probably going to go with flowers and/or clouds, maybe some streams of white or rainbow light from the top bottom and side points (if you do a WT practice, you know what I mean).
As for that outer ring that was so damaged by the lower right corner? I might leave that one area with less ornamentation, just as a reminder of what happened, of the years of hiding and damage, and of all the people who bent over backwards, who literally risked their lives, just to save this White Tara. I want to honor all that.
And the four empty corners? I decided, in the end, they needed to reflect the history of the period in which the piece was created, the artistic spirit of the piece, and the religious nature of this particular version of WT. I decided also they needed to speak, in an appropriate way, to modern people about WT’s purview as well as to the vision of those Rime JK’s who became the caretakers of this piece.
It took a lot of meditating upon. Eventually I got to a solution.
I would put a rabbit moon, maybe in Tibetan clouds, on the top left corner with some stars, and a pair of cranes flying over a sun in the top right corner. It’s typical to find a sun and moon at the top of a thangka. Generally they’re small features, but I’m riffing Lukhang and in 2020, it’s important to emphasize that we are a part of the natural world, interconnected. Care of, love for, compassion toward all of nature, more than ever, needs to be at the forefront our thoughts and actions.
The Great 5th Dalai Lama (the Nyingma) had a rabbit moon mural in his Lukhang temple. A temple of Dzogchen secrets. You can read about the temple and see the secret murals now. They’re all online. So my rabbit moon? That’s a connection to the current Dalai Lama, who is Gelug, to Dzogchen, and to the Nyingma. But the rabbit moon is also associated with longevity in China which fits well with WT. And, there’s a Buddhist story about how the rabbit came to be depicted in the moon.
In the Buddhist version, Indra (yes, the Hindu god, just go with it) takes the form of a mendicant trying to learn about Buddhism. He comes across some animals that offer him their food. Each animal is able to offer him something, but the rabbit has no food to offer. In his generosity, the rabbit throws himself on the fire as a self-sacrifice. Because it’s what the Buddha would do. And the rabbit is the Buddha (in a previous incarnation, before he was the Buddha).
Indra however stops the fire from burning the bunny’s biscuits by making the flames cool, thus the rabbit is saved. He then praises the little rabbit’s generosity and draws the rabbit’s image on the moon so everyone will remember the rabbit’s nobility and act of generosity for as long as the moon exists. And yes, you’re right. I couldn’t pass an opportunity to self-reference in the art and leave a clue I (Indra) was there.
I’m going to confess here, that I shamelessly lifted a few things for my roughs from Robert Beer’s Handbook of Tibetan Buddist Symbols. British author and artist Robert Beer is a wonderful, contemporary thangka painter. He’s been at it since the 1970s. Since much Tibetan thangka art imagery is “borrowed,” I felt like it was in keeping with the tradition. There isn’t really an idea of copyrighted images within the field of iconography or Asian art, and even so I’m riffing and mixing it up, to create a personal piece of devotional art.
Cranes and deer are common in Tibet and China. They are associated with longevity and immortality in both China and Tibet. There are Tibetan and Chinese styles of drawing these animals. But their meaning is the same. Using Tibetan red deer (near extinct) and black-necked crane (vulnerable species) seemed to fit well with the WT longevity aspect, the Rime outlook, and the crossover Chinese influence extant in the artwork. (If you want to know more about Endangered Animals of Tibet, this report is from 2005. But still has lots of good information. Only 55 pgs. With a few mall B&W pictures.)
I put the deer on the bottom left corner, facing WT’s extended hand. I also added a flowing stream with the deer because that’s often a feature in longevity paintings. So for now, the bottom left and upper right corners has symbols that read more long life in meaning. While the bottom right and upper left has symbols that read more religious in meaning.
On the bottom right corner, I went out of the box with a Tibetan Blue Bear, a rare morph of the endangered Tibetan Brown Bear. It looks more black, but so black it’s bluish. Use of a bear is nt as weird as you might think, trust me. The bear does have history with Buddhism. It’s considered to be a form the Buddha took in one of his past lives.
But I admit, the bear is a very rare as an animal found on Tibetan thankga. It’s used as a means of transport for a wrathful protector, Kshetrapala. It’s found with Damchen Garwa Nagpo in the retinue of Nyingma protector, Dorje Legpa. And Damchen has a bear as one of his animal allies /messengers. That’s about it. Very marginal use of Bears.
Much of the extant vajrayana bear imagery is super wrathful. Most Tibetan Buddhist artists I suspect maybe had never seen a bear. So, because none of the thangka bears I could findlooked at all like bears, I had to work on that. Admittedly the bear was the most difficult. It had to look real, but also be stylized to fit the existing artwork. I worked from images of peaceful living Tibetan bears. So handsome!
How I came to use the bear as a symbol began with a story about Milarepa appearing to his disciples as a black bear. Milarepa went up into the mountains to mediate. He was gone quite a while, so his disciples figured he was probably due for a “health and wellness” visit. They went up the mountain but were frightened off when they saw a large black bear coming from Milarepa’s cave.
They ran back down the mountain, feeling terribly sad, and thinking Milarepa had been killed by the bear. Eventually they went up again, to collect their beloved teacher’s remains from the bear’s cave. When they arrived, it was just in time to see the bear going into the cave and transforming into Milarepa. Yep, Milarepa was fine. Apparently had a bit of shape-shifting shamanism going on there?
The bear is revered for its solitary, monastic life and cave dwelling, so very similar to great teachers like Milarepa (and Jigme Lingpa). Given that JK Wangpo (a Sakya) was an incarnation of Jigme Lingpa (a Nyingma), and revered as Milarepa himself (a Kagyu saint- who was also a murderer, like St Paul), I thought, using a new symbol, the bear, to represent all three, to represent Rime, was a good choice. It invokes their memories and connection to WT and the Rime movement.
And too, the bear serves as another conservation message. People need to stop killing precious Tibetan bears! No matter what their color. Bears get poached for traditional medicine, same as elephants and rhino. It’s truly horrific and awful. Currently there’s not even been a census of the bears in Tibet. No one is looking out for them, noticing if they’re being murdered. Tibet needs to take action.
WT, help those Rime bears, Please. Western zoological societies? You could use a TBB breeding conservation program.
The Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus) is actually subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos) found in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. It is also called the Himalayan blue bear, Himalayan snow bear, Tibetan brown bear, or horse bear. In Tibetan, it is called Dom gyamuk. One of the rarest subspecies of bear in the world, the blue bear is rarely sighted in the wild. The blue bear is known in the West only through a small number of fur and bone samples. It was first classified in 1854.
The Tibetan Brown Bear is considered medium sized, for bears. It has shaggy, dark brown to black fur, with a cream to cinnamon face, and a white collar that broadens from the shoulders to the chest. The ears are small but covered with long black fur. That’s omething I tried to capture, but I’m still working on it.
I get that I’m completely “breaking” with thangka tradition by creating a brand new piece of iconography, but again, this WT is a brand new artwork, even though it’s are-creation. It’s a truly Rime WT. And ultimately, it’s an offering for healing and brand new rebirth for my former sangha. It’s motivated by nothing but good heart intentions. Also, there is no current Tibetan thangka symbol for Rime, as there are symbols for other sects.
Gelug are Tigers. I know that one. It’s on a lot of thangkas. The only real animal of the 4. I’m guessing: Nyingma are Garuda (because the garuda kings also have sex with women and use magic?); Kagyu are Snow Lions(?); Sakya are Dragons(?). These are known in Tibet as the Animals of the 4 Directions. The Wind Horse is that weird 5th direction – center/space. I guess I could have used the Wind Horse but it’s already a loaded symbol in Tibetan culture. I think it’s time, after over 200 years, that Rime had a symbol all its own.
I kept the purple background at the top and the green background at the bottom. It’s what was there. It felt important to try to keep to the artist’s original color scheme as much as possible. My hope is that the finished work would meet with the approval of the original artist or owner and that whatever intent was purposely buried within the art, remains in tact, for the benefit of those who are wise or enlightened enough to discern it. And that’s not me.
So, that’s where things are today. I need to do more WT mediation, keep refining and experimenting. Noodling, is what architectural preservationist and all around inspiration Brett Waterman would say. But, that’s it for now for discussions of White Tara and Buddhism. I hope some of you are less frightened of Buddhists in general and Tibetan Buddhists in particular now. Maybe a few of you have even found comfort and healing in meditation, the Buddhist view of death, or White Tara practice during this terrible time. If so, I rejoice.
I may post a picture of the finished WT thangka someday, but that may take many months. I’ll maybe be around on twitter now and then for the next couple months. I’ll definitely be back in California in February, barring….who knows what. I’m not sure I’ll return to posting then. Or what I’d post about. We’ll see. In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas to all.
Yes, still a Christian. Still a follower of and believer in Jesus Christ. Still planning on just one life, well-lived, and going to be with God.
Christianity allows me to think critically about Buddhism. Buddhism allows me to think critically about Christianity. I’m grateful for both. But as it is written in the Scriptures, a leopardess cannot change her spots.
Not even a snow leopardess.
If you’re at a loss for giving this year?
- A $1 scratcher with a hand-written note in a card, can go a long way toward brightening a lonely neighbor’s dark winter.
- A $1 for museums, botanic gardens, newspapers, and wikipedia, can keep them delighting and informing us online while in lockdown.
- And of course, $1 can fill little mangers in local shelters/rescues, zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks to lighten little hearts till we meet again some sunny day.
Do what good you can for any being you can. There is not act of kindness to small that cannot change the world for another.
I leave my Christian friends this final gift. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.