In Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the quickest ways to become a buddha is to imagine yourself as one. But while the classic stories of enlightenment are filled with male protagonists and buddhas, enlightened women are not given nearly the same play, leaving female practitioners with few heroines to emulate.
A new exhibition at Tibet House US in Manhattan seeks to even the odds. Divine Feminine: New Masterpieces from Nepal, on view through May 11, 2018, is a series of 50 new works from master Nepalese artist Karsang Lama. A third-generation painter, Lama has devoted his life to studying tantric Buddhist texts and painting maps of enlightenment.
The extensive collection, which opened this March, celebrates the significant roles that female buddhas, bodhisattvas, yidams [meditational deities], and dharma protectors have played in the tradition’s history, theology, and ritual practices.
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At the opening reception, Lama made his mission clear: “Everyone thinks of Buddhism as male-oriented. You have the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and countless other male figureheads. I want to shine a light on the female buddhas that have worked to free all beings from suffering.”
Lama, whose thangkas [Tibetan scroll paintings] have been displayed in monasteries and museums across Asia, the United States, Europe, and Australia, is well aware that art can have a profound impact on how stories of awakened beings are preserved, shared, and understood by modern practitioners. This exhibit is part of a wider conversation around shifting focus away from male-dominated imagery and emphasizing important female figures in Tibetan Buddhism, prompting us to reconsider whose narratives are worthy of artistic treatment. Among the 35 female buddhas said to have attained realization in one lifetime, Lama singles out a few notables in his New York City showcase.
Standing nearly six feet tall, by far the largest work in the collection is Lama’s rendering of Machig Labdrön, which took him three years to complete. Set in a silk brocade, it is an impressive homage to the 11th-century Tibetan yogini, an able teacher recognized for her high spiritual achievement and founder of the Chöd lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, which to this day remains one of the most efficacious and popular tantric methods used to cut through ego and delusion.
Depicted here as a dakini, or female embodiment of wisdom, adorned with bone ornaments and precious jewels, Machig dances radiantly atop an opaque moon disc. She is playing two ritual instruments used in chöd ceremonies, a double-sided drum and a vajra-handled bell, intended to slash through ignorance, attachment, and aggression. Perched on banks of clouds around her are the main gurus, mahasiddhas [great adepts], and lineage teachers of Chöd.
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Neighboring this work are two other goddesses, Green and White Tara. Painted in 24k gold against black backgrounds conveying the darkness of ignorance, these transfixing portraits amplify the gallery’s overall atmosphere as a space in which the line between worlds, the mundane and the mystical, feels thinner.
In the first piece, resting in the middle of 1,000 mirror-like images—each of which, says Lama, was hand-drawn with a paintbrush made of three animal hairs—is the female bodhisattva White Tara, one of the 21 emanations of Tara, the feminine counterpart of Avalokiteshvara [bodhisattva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet]. The manifestation of transcendent wisdom, longevity, and the maternal aspect of compassion, White Tara aids devotees in overcoming dangers and difficulties along the spiritual path.
There are subtle slits on the surface of the deity’s palms and the soles of her feet; these features are meant to be four eyes representing Buddhism’s four immeasurables, or sublime states: compassion, lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The three eyes on her visage denote the perfection of her body, speech, and mind.
By her side is Lama’s equally mesmerizing and regal Green Tara outfitted in a five-leafed crown set against an ornate halo composed of auspicious symbols. Often regarded as the mother of all Buddhas, Green Tara, bejeweled and dressed in fine gold silks, sits on a lotus pedestal with her right hand in varada mudra, signifying generosity, and her left in abhaya mudra, a gesture of protection.
In both paintings, the hundreds of detailed Taras evoke the ineffable interplay of the many and the one. Green Tara’s open and inviting eyes, the very last brushstrokes a thangka painter will make to awaken a deity, are a refreshing juxtaposition to the more ethereal, seven-eyed White Tara.
The lack of explanatory wall text accompanying individual pieces—one of the exhibition’s few shortcomings—compounds the desire to sit with and make sense of each work. Thankfully, Lama was among the crowd for several days after the opening to field questions from captivated onlookers about his creative process.
“Visualization involves thinking beyond the system,” Lama explained during an afternoon Q&A discussion on March 22. “If you can’t visualize beyond the mind, then you can’t create.” While often conflated, imagination and visualization are actually quite different from one another in Tibetan Buddhist practice. For Lama, imagination is tied to the mind, and when you attempt to create art by relying too heavily on the mind alone, you’re bound to make mistakes, run into creative blockages like self-doubt, anger, and frustration, or get sidetracked by debilitating refrains.
Visualization, he says, bypasses the fragility of memory and egoic snares; it’s an ability that comes from uncluttering the mind and listening to the heart. Remaining “empty-minded” may seem counterintuitive to an artist’s conventional approach, but for thangka painters, it is essential.
The idea of making yourself an empty vessel is not unique to Buddhist artists (just ask the ancient Greeks), but what is distinctive about this style of painting is that the entire process—from mixing mineral paints by hand to preparing the canvas and finally sacralizing the image by an empowered teacher—is a devotional exercise used for religious and didactic purposes. Apart from serving as objects of meditation and instruments of invocation, thangkas might be commissioned to teach novice monks and nuns about Buddhist cosmology and history, help heal the sick, or aid the dying in navigating bardo states [liminal spaces between lives].
Tantric Buddhist art is not known for its minimalism, and these decadent scroll paintings are no exception. Museumgoers may cover a fair amount of ground in a single visit, yet each piece is bursting with such intricate symbolism and iconography that the collection merits a return—if not in this lifetime, then the next.
Divine Feminine: New Masterpieces from Nepal is on view through May 11, 2018, at Tibet House US, 22 West 15th Street, in New York City. Admission is free.
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