G. Roger Denson
Cultural critic, essayist and novelist published with Parkett, Art in America and Bijutsu Techo
In mid-January the British-born Buddhist nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo — the closest thing we have to a Thomas Merton figure today — spoke before a sold-out audience at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Arts in Manhattan. The nun of 50 years is known not only for having spent twenty years of her life meditating in a cave, but for her founding of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for young Buddhist nuns in the Kangra Valley of the Indian state Himachal Pradesh, a two-hour drive from the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala. The topic was Jetsunma’s approach to visualization in meditation and the overall place of art in its embodiment and enhancement of dharma.
The audience revealed themselves in their questions to be largely enthusiastic Americans, many no doubt who embrace or are considering embracing Buddhism as the guiding principle for their lives. But there were also those like myself who are neither Buddhist nor a practitioner of meditation but were there because the visualization in question regards the art of Himalayan Buddhism — or Tibetan Buddhism as it’s more often, if narrowly, called. In my case, as a student of world cultures and in particular of belief systems, mythologies and mythopoetics, I’m interested in why a faith and artistic sensibility that is so spectacularly mythological in an archaic sense has such an appeal to so many Americans brought up in a culture of modernism. Most of the new Buddhists I meet are highly rational individuals, yet they meditate seriously and serenely with the aid of supernatural, even monstrous figurative, sometimes barely humanoid, iconography that include primary- and secondary-colored entities, some with six or eight arms — buddhas, bodhisattvas, yogis and hybrid beings, some even gods and goddesses — that resemble characters we today see in comic books and screen animations. Even in the centuries of their elaboration in Hinduism and Buddhism one-to-two millennia ago, they must have seemed too unbelievable by the more rational earthbound devotees of Buddhism, especially those concerned with the philosophy of ethics and compassion, to be considered as anything more than an artist’s ingenious escape from the mundane pictorial constrictions of ordinary life.
Himalayan Buddhism is particularly possessed of a hyper-magical pantheon of allegorical protagonists and antagonists especially difficult to reconcile with the more Zen-like principles of many Mahayana Buddhists and which place value on conceptual, perceptual and physical emptiness, stillness, and even an art of poverty over the wealth of chromatic and gilded embellishments of the Himalayan art of spirituality. The Himalayan taste for vivid, some might say electric color, combined with the erotism of certain of its sculptures and paintings, seems especially out of sync with the Zen-like minimalism of its more famous artist and intellectual practitioners. I’m referring to such seminal figures in the arts as Phillip Glass, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and scores of others like them. Then, too, it is to it’s credit that Himalayan Buddhist devotional art and meditative visualization, like much of the Indian art from which it derives, welcomes the erotic character in art. South-Asian civilization as a whole requires no Freud or Bataille to instruct them on how and why erotism cannot be deleted from the history of religion, however much the world’s othodoxies would wish it away. In Himalayan sacred art, erotism, like all other visualizations, activates the mind’s eye — the eye of inward apperception — to transform our external perception of our own presumed singular and disparate realities into bridges to endless other individualities that together build the continuity that binds us as a whole.
But discussions of magical realism, surrealism and the art of spectacle and erotism are not what concerns the impressively serene and pragmatic Jetsunma, as she is called by everyone to her apparent satisfaction. Even when discussing a topic like visualization, she remains focused on the liberation attained in the process, not the abstract or structural, the psychological or the mystical methods and effects. Her priorities are rooted in the social implications of Buddhism, which is attested by her early life focus. It was at the age of 20 in 1964 that she became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Thanks to at least two biographies written about her since, she has acquired the reputation and recognition of delivering hard financial and concrete results in a career devoted to the advancement of young women. Hers is the kind of character that proved itself capable of navigating through all the cultural, ideological and political differences that obscure right living, or at least the pathways to right living that manage to run through the bureaucracy and prejudice characterizing life in the northern border region of Himachal Pradesh, India.
We should remember that despite the region’s idyllic, unspoiled scenery, this is a territory bordering the new Chinese Tibet, a country being gutted of its cultural legacy and governed with an abrasively hostile Chinese colonialism intent on the complete assimilation of Tibet within the Chinese cultural landscape. Authorities here must also contend with the insidious trafficking of young girls that transgresses India’s borders with Bhutan and Nepal, two nations from which several of her young nuns have emigrated to seek out the DGL sanctuary. Yet despite the region’s political and legal elusiveness and complexity, somehow this woman who spent fifty years practicing meditation, has raised the funding to build and maintain a bricks-and-mortar monastery for women largely of Himalayan descent. The name ‘Dongyu Gatsal Ling’ is apt, meaning as it does ‘Delightful Garden of the Authentic Lineage’. Yes, ideological competition interrupts even the serenity of Buddhists, at least those caught up with the rivalry of lineages both between and within the Theravada and Mahayana schools. Even Jetsunma isn’t above showing loyalty to the Drukpa Kagyu lineage to which she belongs. With “Druk” meaning dragon, the lineage can be seen literally weaving throughout the monastery’s decoration and art in the sculpted and painted dragons that twist around columns of the DGL temple.
While Jetsunma is helping the Tibetans in exile to preserve the legacy of their traditional sacred art — for which she has commissioned the renowned master Tibetan thangka painter-in-exile, Kalsang Damchoe, the founder of the Kalsang Tibetan Traditional Art of Thangka Painting studio in India — the charismatic nun is attracting attention for what she and Mr. Damchoe are introducing to the Himalayan tradition while setting the art of the DGL sanctuary apart. And that is the mythopoetic radicalism of the art installed — ‘mythopoetic’ meaning the making of new myths. For over the last few years, Jetsunma has commissioned the creation and installation of art work that emphasizes the power of the female principle and presence in art, life and devotion.
I should here clarify that my discussion of this history in mythological terms does not mean that I am using the term ‘myth’ as synonymous with ‘untruth’ or ‘fiction’, as is mistakenly done in colloquial usage. Myth is a language and principle, or complex of principles, that cannot be deemed true or false, fact or fiction. Myth is another word for a model or an idea of things, rather than a description of things in the world. More concretely, myth is a model for living, not a mirror of life. And in this sense Buddhist mythopoetics is the making or remaking of myths modeling right living in contemporary society. In the DGL nunnery the myths of Tara, Vajrayoginī, Mahākāla, and their many aspects, stand in for living qualities within us all, yet which require enhanced living (whether through meditation, right living, compassion, charity, activism, and ideally all of the above). Even the wrath of a deity such as Mahākāla has a right place when considered as a protection of the righteous and downtrodden — which is why Mahākāla appears prominently in the murals at the DGL shrine.
It was apparent that the seasoned Buddhists in the audience at the Rubin Museum on that freezing January night were as unprepared as I for the mythopoetic character of the art being introduced to them. For no one who has studied Himalayan art would expect the brand of feminism that Jetsunma introduced quietly and without polemics in the slide projections. Jetsunma herself has expressed the character of her mythopoetics.
“Our temple is at the heart of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery Since this is a Nunnery, the inner decoration of the temple reflects female embodiments of Enlightenment – Tara, Vajrayogini and so on – and this is especially emphasized in the exquisite murals around the walls and the rounded stained glass windows. There are walls dedicated to senior nun saints surrounding Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahaprajapati who was the Buddha’s stepmother and the first nun. These are rarely portrayed in Buddhist art. Also there is the great yogin Milarepa surrounded by his female disciples. When people enter they immediately feel a sense of peace together with gentle but powerful feminine energy: they feel awed and uplifted.”
Perhaps we all should have expected an espousal of feminism to come from Jetsunma. After all, she became a Buddhist nun just when her native England and the West as a whole was undergoing a radical feminization of society. Why shouldn’t feminism now be brought to fruition among Buddhists? They are, after all, among the most civilized and democratic peoples the world has known, and it should be no more remarkable to witness feminism manifest in a Himalayan sacred art that has long depicted female deities, yoginis, and bodhisattvadevi, than it is in the art of the West. Yet remarkable it is, and for the reason that the historical characterization of the very entities that Jetsunma commissions for her art were originally designed to placate the patriarchal sensibility written into and legislating Buddhist social structures.
There is also the revelation for this writer that my own expectation not to find feminism in such a traditional religious environment was an impediment arising from my own eurocentric world view. And once I realized this, there was nothing to keep me from seeing feminism aligning with Himalayan Buddhism and its art. For despite being European, eurocentrism by all appearances did not keep Jetsunma from finding the heart of feminism beating within the very center of the Buddhist practice of meditation. But of course she would find it there. For the discovery, spread and eventual ubiquity of meditation is arguably the first democratic revolution in history. The world has forgotten that meditation was developed by middle-class Hindus who posed themselves in defiance of the self-aggrandizing practices of the Brahmin oligarchy and priests in India some three thousand years ago. They had discovered that the simple practice of looking within oneself liberates the individual — any and all individuals — from the dictates of an imposed authority over a spirituality that is for everyone to legislate for herself through meditation. And one key to that spirituality is the visualization of the self possessed of all the attributes of a buddha and a god. It only follows that for the individual accustomed to identifying as feminine in gender to naturally depart into her visualization of divinity from a female avatar.
What’s important here for humanity as a whole (and what we who demand a more avant-garde and abrasive art of dissent have to come to terms with), is that the new Himalayan convent that Jetsunma has built and outfitted with art is the kind of cultural environment that is necessarily traditional and indigenous, and thereby welcoming to the young novitiates who gather everyday to study, meditate and perform the rituals around which the Buddhist monastic calendar revolves. Most importantly, the nunnery that receives these women of a Himalayan heritage — many who flee the many faces of East- and South-Asian authoritarianism and the subsuming corporate globalism which together threaten to annihilate their heritage — supplies them with an iconography of resilient and active feminine character aspects to reinforce their conviction and practice as women students, professionals, artists and Buddhists.
Jetsunma’s project is no less than one of liberating the feminist aspects that lay dormant within these myths and icons for centuries. A good portion of the figures that decorate the temple and study halls derive from the 4th century CE, when the feminine principle first gains acceptance in the Mahayana traditions that Himalayan Buddhism partakes in. It was around the 6th century that the goddess Tara, who dominates the DGL temple in the number of her aspects represented, appears as the region’s female personification of Kannon, who was before this always represented as male in India and China, where he was only just being introduced. There was a feminist activism attendant to their assimilation into mainstream society even in these early centuries, as Kannon in Japan and China very quickly became represented as a female bodhisattvadevi and after that as the Goddess of Mercy and Harmony. Throughout Buddhist Asia, there was a renewed assimilation of the female principle that originally departed from, or was conferred by, the male bodhisattva and deity. For example, Tara’s origins have her as no more than Kannon’s wife.
For this viewer, the renewed representation of real women grounded in history yet neglected or underestimated by historical accounts is the most substantial contribution to the visualization of women active in Buddhism. The six figures pictured at the beginning of this post are attributed with being historical, that is if we count the legendary Mahapajapati Gotami, the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt who is attributed with being the first woman to receive ordination from the Buddha. On the walls of the nunnery we find her accompanied by five other nuns, the first to have followed her example.
Are Jetsunma, her nuns and artists achieving something truly radical and unprecedented at DGL? In the context of tradition-laden India, Nepal and Bhutan, they are, For however many exceptional women in the region of the Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi subcontinent have emerged in recent decades as national and international leaders, it is their very exceptionalism that informs us that not enough women benefit from their example because inspiration without means are inert for not being able to sustain life through the kind of bond the mutually beneficial partnerships produce. Women require the opposite of exceptionalism to build a society in their image. They need women in great numbers to bring change. Jetsunma’s emphasis on the female form in meditation is productive because she also supplies the means — the housing, clothing, food, books — the protection — that the young women cannot find on their own amid the conservative male populace and who are making headlines regularly for their treatment of women. We need only recall the Hindu mobs in India who burned down the movie sets for Deepa Mehta’s Academy-award nominated film, Water. And this for a story that did no more than plead for a humanist and compassionate end to the archaic Bhahmin practices of grown and often old men taking child brides; of forcing widows into isolation and abandonment upon their husbands’ deaths, and the desperate prostitution to which the most desperate resort.
Jetsunma herself has recounted obstacles imposed on her for her gender, “When I first came to India I lived in a monastery with 100 monks. I was the only nun… I think that is why I eventually went to live by myself in a cave… The monks were kind, and I had no problems of sexual harassment or troubles of that sort, but of course I was unfortunately within a female form. They actually told me they prayed that in my next life I would have the good fortune to be reborn as a male so that I could join in all the monastery’s activities. In the meantime, they said, they didn’t hold it too much against me that I had this inferior rebirth in the female form. It wasn’t too much my fault.”
In fact the gender bias has only made her more resolved to doing her part in ending it, “I have made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form – no matter how many lifetimes it takes”.
Jetsunma in collaboration with her artists and donors are reversing the historical equation of gender prominence to bolster the confidence of her charges. With the exception of a handful of paintings and sculptures representing the Buddha and other male bodhisattva and yogis, such as Milarepa, who are significant in Buddhist history, the walls are covered and the niches filled with scores of women’s sacred figurative imagery and statues overlooking the study and temple areas.
Given that the art of the DGL temple and monastery is of a traditional nature, it stimulates comparison with the visualization of women in the artistic traditions of the world’s religions and faith systems in general, both those living and dead. Which is why I close this post with a range of iconography that have promoted and still promote strong feminine principles and presences to compare with the DGL iconography of deities, saints, bodhisattvadevis, yoginis, and real women religious.
–Special thanks go to Venerable Aileen Barry, assistant to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo for the images and information regarding the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery installations and the names and characterizations of the subjects depicted. And thanks to Chrysanne Stathacos and the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives for setting up the correspondences necessary for this article.
(For more on recent trends in the feminization of women’s myth, see Women’s Mythopoetic Art: Going Back to Start, Heroically, on Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/g-roger-denson/womens-mythopoetic-art-go_b_1772277.html)