Asian Art Museum B69S15
Shockingly to me, fierce Vajrayana with all its sexual symbolism and violent imagery comes straight of of Nalanda and its associated monasteries. I still cling to a naive vision of Nalanada, all ruined foundations of buildings with ancient little ghostly monks running around debating texts and meditating all the time. That may have some basis in historical reality, but apparently that's only part of the story. Buddhism came into Tibet from India in two waves, the first wave of royal Vajrayana brought into the country by Songtsen Gampo (this is when the Tibetan language was created to translate texts out of Sanskrit) with some help of the "master of magical margins," Padmasambhava. The second wave, with a "substantial prevalence of ferocity," otherwise known as fierce Vajrayana, was brought into the country from the Nalanda consortium by the Tibetan king Jangchub Od with some help from Rinchen Zangpo and Atisha, a Bengali. Both of these waves are complicated by the desire to shore up shaky political regimes and legitimize rulers without unanimous public support, all while mediated by a bunch of folks interested in living not in our ordinary mundane world but instead inhabiting a life-sized version of the Vajradhatu, or vajra world.
|The Cosmic Buddha Vairochana|
Asian Art Museum 1992.58
That's the "nice way" of recognizing and practicing nonduality. But those wily Buddhists had another approach as well. Recognizing that the margins and thresholds of experience offer an opportunity for great transformation and possibility, they went straight at the most charged of those margins: death and sexuality. Hence the fierce Vajrayana. Instead of flooding the mind with an elevated, unified experience of a stable center, they decided to radically deconstruct that unitary center in an effort to simultaneously dissolve ordinary and limiting states of mind. Best way to do this? Intentional focus on death and dismemberment to shock an ordinary practitioner into the realization of impermanence. With an idea that you must "become equal to that which must be tamed," practitioners work with intense imagery of fear and desire to learn to confront fear and desire, transforming negative emotional states into their opposite spiritual capacities.
|The Buddhist Deities Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara |
Asian Art Museum B60B179
Which is probably why my initial introduction to Padmasambhava had a whole lot more to do with 8 year olds born fully formed from a lotus than Padmasambhava banned from the king's palace after killing a minister's son (oops) and haunting charnal grounds. But I don't think you can begin to appreciate Padmasambhava (notice I didn't say "begin to understand") unless you identify him as a frequenter of social margins, operating in places of obvious and intense transformation. Oh, and yes, he spent a lot of time in those charnal grounds consorting with dakinis (and no, we didn't get into the specifics of this. I'm assuming "unlocking the capacity of skywalkers" is perhaps a bit beyond the purview of art history). But I will say that I doubt these women, if they were charnal ground frequenters, were attractive in quite the way some current male Buddhist practitioners imagine them to be. But hey, if they're bending the space-time continuum for you, maybe you get to imagine them any way you like.
|The Buddhist Deity Naro Dakini|
Asian Art Museum B60D8+
|Ewer With Human Skulls|
Asian Art Museum B60M454