Is That What I Think It Is? Yes, Maybe, No, Perhaps.

One-Faced Linga
Asian Art Museum  B69S15
I knew I was in for it at the Asian Art Museum this year when the first object I was assigned to present this fall was a rather spectacular one-faced linga.  In keeping with that spirit, the last object I was assigned to present this spring was a beautifully crafted ewer made out of human skulls.  Lingas and skulls, skulls and lingas... exactly what is going on?  And what is up with the fierce Vajrayana we've been dealing with in the Himalayan galleries?  As Jeff Durham, our curator of Himalayan art at the museum would say, "let's get straight to the sex and violence."

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  
My personal illuminating moment came in Durham's discussion of the difference in the cultivation of nonduality (nicely packaged as "the idea that apparent opposites are part of a single continuum") in royal and fierce Vajrayana.  The idea of royal Vajrayana is to replace an ordinary practitioner's awareness with a symbolic spiritual state through the creation of a continuum of body, speech, and mind through the use of mudra (hand positioning), mantra (spiritual sound), and mandala (mind visualization).  By bringing body, speech, and mind together in a unified meditative experience, this experience has the opportunity to pervade a practitioner's entire perception, creating a stable psychological center that rests in nonduality, or recognition that the meditator is not separate from the meditation, from the world around them, or from the deity they're evoking through body, speech and mind.

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
and Vajravarahi
Asian Art Museum  
All that violence and sex?  It's clearly got the attention of anyone who walks into our Himalayan galleries, myself included.  But I'll also admit that each time I walk into the Himalayan galleries there's a part of me that doesn't want to be there.  Partly it's the unsettling nature of human bones made into art and explicit statues of male deities in union with their consorts.  But it's the same feeling I experienced looking at an exquisite 2005 exhibition of Tibetan art, knowing that without Chinese control of Tibet I'd never be seeing treasures of the Dalai Lama in San Francisco.  Uneducated audiences without a solid grounding in Buddhist philosophy and practice were never meant to see most fierce Vajrayana pieces, and most Buddhists in Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia themselves would never have been introduced to many of the objects in our museum .  The ground for misunderstanding and misidentification is clearly wide and fertile.  

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  
Anyway, where exactly does this leave us?  Perhaps with Jane Singer, who advises us that "Radical activities... could thus be contemplated as a means of breaking free of the practitioner's own conventional notions of spirituality.  Moreover, Esotericism taught that enlightenment resulted not from "good" or "bad" behavior but from a profound knowledge of oneself."  Is it possible to have a profound knowledge of oneself without a good, hard look at the desire, fear, and emotional afflictions at the heart of human experience?  Probably not.  Or perhaps this leaves us with Robert Thurman, who writes that "Images like this [father-mother union]... represent the deepest archetypes of the unconscious, integrating the powerful, instinctual energies of life into a consciously sublimated and exalted state."  This is the ultimate union of wisdom and compassion, represented in one of the most powerful human symbols of the joining of opposites.

Ewer With Human Skulls
Asian Art Museum  
But I think I prefer to conclude with Durham's observation, "The world we call the mythic, the spiritual, interweaves with this one to an unknowable extent.  We don't even recognize it most of the time, we're so asleep."  It takes the margins, those twilight zones of experience, to even look up from our ordinary world and recognize possibilities beyond the constraints of our mundane dreams.  But, he notes, twilight zones are dangerous places.  Any time you hold the power of a varja within your own hand, it's worth recognizing that the transformative power you've harnessed can cut multiple ways.  Perhaps in recognition of this, Tibetans were careful about what they took from India and Nepal (the finest and swiftest philosophy, the most transcendent meditative art) and equally attentive to its cultivation and distillation over centuries.  The result is undeniably powerful and thought-provoking, directly experienced by even the most untutored visitor to the galleries.