Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Black Bodhisattvas

Two Mahāmudrā teachers. From a small 14th-century painting once in the Jucker Collection, presently in the collection of the Rubin Museum. Vairocanarakṣita, an important Indian teacher from Orissa, best known for his single-handed translations of Dohā (‘couplet’) songs of the Mahāsiddhas, is on your left, with Padampa on your right. They are identified beyond any possibility for doubt by inscriptions on the reverse side of the painting. Padampa's name is given as Dampa Gyagar Nagpo ('Holy Black Indian' —for this name, look here, on p. 32). For the full picture, look here.

I would like to dedicate today's brief blog, along with the paper linked to it, to both Martin Luther King Day, which was yesterday, and to the inauguration of the first ever African American (or as people my age will probably continue forever to say with pride and respect, disregarding the latest demands of the logo-therapists [those who believe in the theory that changes in reality are brought about by changes in terminology], black) president, which has taken place today. Like some others, I'm sure, I'm a little too old, world-weary and cynical to be a true believer in all that rhetoric of 'hope' and 'change' repeated so often in the pre-election campaign. Nonetheless I've been in an unusually optimistic mood these last few days. Even I can't make myself so cynical as to say that hope is unjustified. What is President Obama's book called, The Audacity of Hope? I see real possibilities that a black head of state — and yes, even one with faults and the ability to make mistakes — might go very far to heal the racial divide in the U.S. Racism is hardly a U.S. monopoly, but its long and shameful history of black slavery and subsequent exploitation and discrimination has practically defined the term for the rest of the globe. And beyond the U.S. borders, we can hope (and if you prefer, pray) that the Obama presidency will be instrumental in bringing richly deserved and long overdue peace to the Middle East. With peace, equality, personal growth and understanding, everyone benefits. Partisanship, chauvinism, hostility, discrimination? We know what they bring all too well.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Yes indeed!

It may be audacious of me to imagine the attached paper will make people think about things that so far haven't much entered into the minds of those with interests in Tibet; I mean in particular the academic Tibetologists. Although limited to a particular locale at only one point in Tibetan history, it raises issues of ethnic identity and conflict on various levels. I hope it can lead to some rethinking and creative solutions to some old problems, even if I haven't been able to propose very much along those lines. Because it is somewhat technical, I only recommend it to people engaged in Tibetan Studies, or to those who have been following the previous blogs and articles on Padampa.  I tried to make things clear/er, but it isn't for beginners.  If you think you want to read more, press here to get started. Meanwhile, whether you feel like reading it or not, remember to be thankful for air and other simple gifts.

Warmly recommended reading:

Janice D. Willis, Dreaming Me — Black, Baptist and Buddhist: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey, was first published in 2001 by Riverhead Books. The author is a professor at Wesleyan University. Written in a clear style, this book should prove appealing to practically everyone I know. Sorry, but I loaned my copy to my sister, and don't expect to see it again any time soon. Here is the kind of commercial link I don't usually like to give.

President Obama neglected to mention Buddhists in his Inaugural acceptance speech.  I don't think it means anything, and won't make an issue of it.  But Buddhism has over time achieved a high public profile in the U.S. (here's proof if any were needed), and probably deserves mentioning as much as those he did mention:  

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth..."
One country — guess which one — felt free to edit out (to censor) parts of his speech that endangered their susceptible citizens.

I would also like to point out the website “Rainbow Dharma,” and particularly this page, "Black Buddha: Bringing the Tradition Home."  The interviewee, with the Tibetan name Choyin Rangdrol (this could be approximately translated, “The Realm of Dharmas Self-Liberated”), is a teacher of the Tibetan Nyingmapa school active in the area of Oakland, California.  I don't know much in particular about him or his teaching activities, but I'd like to learn more.  My favorite quotes: "The suffering is on both sides!" and "...being human is enough, and the rest is a footnote."

Essential reading on Padampa iconography:  Rob Linrothe, Strengthening the Roots: An Indian Yogi in Early Drigung Paintings of Ladakh and Zangskar, Orientations, vol. vol. 38, no. 4 (May 2007), pp. 65-71.

Are you wondering what the Tibetan "Obama" has to say these days?  If so, walk on over to "High Peaks Pure Earth" blog and have a look at this.

For more remarkable artworks featuring Padampa, see this link (second figure from your left; that's Virūpa on your far right... identifications for all four figures, see Linrothe's article, p. 69) and this one, too.  A small collection of Padampa  artworks are here.

§  §  §

Quotes of the day

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

— Rev. Martin Luther King

These things are old.
These things are true.

— Barack Hussein Obama,
President of the U.S.

Full moon over the rotunda of the Capital Building 

in Washington DC on January 10, 2009


  1. A postscrpt. Having read the paper, this thought needs to be heard before I can call it quits.

    The caste system repeatedly comes to mind. Is more of this in the mix than anyone would like to admit? I am informed by the writings of David Gordon White and Runoko Rashidi. I think both would agree that "caste" labeling not only delineates the undesirably strange but consistently keeps certain groups of people in the category of the undesirably strange. Does Padampa address this at all, especially coming from the Brahamin caste and having chosen the siddha lifestyle?

  2. Dear Person,

    I hear you. I'm not really an Indologist, and certainly no expert on caste. I once asked a professor in Indology what I had imagined would be a simple question about the particular brahmin sub-caste Padampa belonged to, and he came back with so much information it made my head spin. If you look into it, you see that although Buddha was a kshatriya, most of the later figures among the learned and literarily talented Buddhist writers were born brahmins, and then converted to Buddhism. Aryadeva, Ashvaghosha, and so forth (the list could be fairly long). Of course, of all the castes in India, general learning (and learnedness) was especially promoted within and among the brahmins. You might even say that learning (the Vedas) was their main job (warriors, farmers and tradespersons had their own types of learning useful to their own businesses).

    "Does Padampa address this at all, especially coming from the Brahmin caste and having chosen the siddha lifestyle?"

    I'll have to think more and look into it more. I'm not certain, but I don't think Padampa ever addressed the problems of the caste system directly. But it's partly a problem of terminology, since Tibetan has this 'type' word rigs that is used to cover so much territory (as I said in the paper), rather like the English word 'type.' Have a look here and maybe you will see the problem of choosing from among all those possible definitions.

    There are a lot of arguments about the earlier meanings of caste in India. Some argue that it was originally a theory of how human society works (and how kings ought to rule the different sectors of society), which only later, under Mughal and English occupation, got solidified into a (relatively) rigid system. Precept or advice, over time, becomes prescription. I'm sympathetic with this view, although not familiar enough with the arguments, just because it doesn't see caste as an unchanging 'essence' of Indian culture as so much of the world outside India does today. (To put it simply, 'What's India interesting for?' 'Well, they have the caste system. Thats what makes them interesting...') And of course there are bigger and potentially much hotter arguments surrounding these kinds of discussions (just schmoogle the word 'Hindutva'). I'm not the ideal person to talk to about it.

    Thanks for writing (and for being such a fast reader).


  3. Firstly, thank you for making this fascinating article so freely and easily accessible. There is much to think on here.

    Padampa's use of the ethonym "Khotanese" (Li yul ba) is a little strange though. And why would he refer to himself as such? I was set to thinking about the general view of the Khotanese people that we find in (mainly) Chinese sources. It is strikingly positive, especially when we consider how disparaging the Chinese sources usually are about foreigners.

    For instance, visiting Khotan at the very beginning of the 5th century, the pilgrim Faxian wrote: "This country is prosperous and happy; its people are well-to-do; they have all received the Faith, and find their amusement in religious music."

    And he gave a wonderful description of a Buddhist festival, in which each monastery has a 'float' in a parade before the king and queen: "At a distance of three or four li from the city, a four-wheeled image car is made, over thirty feet in height, looking like a moveable "Hall of Buddha," and adorned with the seven preciousities, with streaming pennants and embroidered canopies. The image of the Buddha is placed in the middle of the car, with two attendent Bodhisattvas and devas (Brahmin demigods) following behind." (Giles' translation, pp.5-6)

    A couple of centuries later Xuanzang reported the same impression: "The country is renowned for its music; the men love the song and the dance." (Beal's translation, p.309)

    Skipping much further ahead, M.A. Stein, who visited Khotan at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote at length, and with great enthusiasm about the Khotanese: "Though it is difficult to to make comparisons in a matter of this sort without prolonged experience, I certainly carried away the impression that a Khotanese crowd or party need less of a tamāshā to feel thoroughly happy than people elsewhere in Turkestān, while their abandonment to the enjoyment of the hour, whether it be a religious festival, family feast, pilgrimage, &c., or merely a novel sight, seemed always distinctly keener." (p.141)

    Stein also connected his impressions with the Chinese sources: "The Liang Annals mention the religious devotion of the people of Yü-t'ien, their extremely reverential habits, and their manufacturing skill. They add the interesting fact that the women of Khotan were freely admitted to society, even in the presence of strangers. Sung Yün speaks of them as wearing trousers and girdles, and riding about on horseback just like the men.... The ardour of the Khotanese in the matter of cult is referred to by the T'ang Annals as well as their cleverness in insinuating ways of speech. The people are described as eager for pleasures, fond of dancing and singing, and skilled in textile arts." (p.139)

    I can see how, based on this perception, one might see everything as coming easily to the Khotanese. They are "naturally religious" and need make no extra efforts beyond what they are in themselves. Also, I wonder if you might return to Padampa's passage on the Khotanese dramatic arts, with these descriptions in mind?

    Finally, Marco Polo (though not the most reliable source) gives the impression that the Khotan boasts a peaceable and liberal sort of culture: "They live by commerce and manufactures, and have no soldiers." (Yule p.188)

    Polo also corroborates the Chinese source's impression of an amount of freedom for women in Khotanese society: "If the husband of any woman go away upon a journey and remain away for more than twenty days, as soon as that term is past the woman may marry another man, and the husband then also may marry whom he pleases.(Yule p.191)

    Sorry to have gone on at such length but I do find the Khotanese people fascinating. Perhaps this fascinating quality rubbed off on Padampa too?

  4. Dear Early,

    Thanks for shedding all that wonderfully positive light on the Khotanese. I'm sure it is somehow relevant, but I think not necessarily so. After all, Padampa is working with local Tingrian perceptions of the peoples of the world. Not the world as known to Chinese travellers, etc. And not only that, but these were their ideas based on their own experiences with outsiders. (I don't want to overdo this, though, since I know that many of Padampa's students at Tingri Langkor were from other parts of the Himalayan range as far as Kham in the east.)

    Another not so small point. I'm not sure Khotanese are meant, exactly. Of course Li-yul is the usual way of saying Khotan (ignoring certain traditional confusions with the Kathmandu Valley for the moment; I don't think this is relevant here). I mean, given their relatively close proximity to Western Tibet (on the map they might look closer than they really are, given the terrain), I still think the term might have been used for the inhabitants of the regions north of Tibet in general.

    I think if Khotanese had a bum reputation in Western Tibet in those days (and those days are not within the time-frames of the evidence you bring forward) it is because they were only known there in the role of marauders.

    Read the story of the marauders from Khotan again. I think it's possible to see between the lines that Padampa, who was staying in meditation retreat in a cave from which he observed the death and destruction of his patrons, unexpectedly benefitted from the experience. His meditation practice improved. (You can imagine at the same time that his food offerings did not improve...)

    This personal experience of Padampa explains that when Khotanese are mentioned in other passages, it's always something to do with what I translate as 'reverse psychology' (for Tibetan gya-log, which could maybe better be translated 'counterintuitive methods' resembling homeopathic treatments... How can a disease be cured by administering something resembling that disease??).

    I think that's about all I can say about Khotanese in the context of the Zhijé Collection. Except to say that all those ethnonyms that Padampa applied to himself were used more or less equally. I think Padampa was purposefully putting himself in the place of everything that was foreign and strange and threatening to his Tingrian followers. He was fully embracing his inner otherness.

    At the same time he wanted them to fully imagine how things might be completely other than their quotidian 'local' lives had made them become. He wanted them to live fully by going outside their usual grooves.

    He wasn't averse to using 'shock' treatments (although generally mild, nothing at all comparable to Naropa's trials). I guess you must get what I mean, and probably even find a better way to put it.

    And another thing to think about: Just how well did Padampa know the social circumstances and the ways of thinking of his Tingrians that he could deploy with ease (and play with) their local complexes about various kinds of outsiders? My impression is that he was himself quite well enculturated to the local scene.

    Thanks for writing.


  5. Dan,

    Thanks for your clear, insightful, and accessible discussion.
    Best Wishes,
    Choyin Rangdrol

  6. Here are some interesting leads to understanding Tibetan/Khotan relations:


    These may already be in your bibliographies; I'm just avoiding assumptions.

  7. I'd like to draw attention to an important new writing on the movement by black/African Americans toward a black Buddhist identity:

    Linda Furgerson Selzer, Black American Buddhism: History and Representation.

    It's chapter 2 in the book entitled Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature into the Twenty-first Century (State University of New York Press, Albany 2011), edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff, with a foreword by Jan Willis.

    According to the author, there has been a particularly strong and growing black American involvement in Buddhist practice that started in the 1990s and is still going on.


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