Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Chinese Mask Trick

I'm no expert in the Chinese dramatic art of sudden mask changes. What I can tell you is this: that some Tibetans were familiar with it nearly a thousand years ago. This video of the Singapore-based artist “Alex the Magician” is placed here as a footnote and an introduction to a relatively short compilation of Padampa's pieces of advice, given to a select group of individuals, called “White Conch Fragments.”

Bian lian, or ‘changing face,’ is a special dramatic technique associated with Szechuan Opera in particular. I don't know how old it is, although I suppose it must be quite old. Right now I would have to say I'm sure it isn't true to say that it was first documented 300 years ago. Write us a comment if you have some clear idea. I am unsure of the real explanation for the very impressive effect, which is instantaneous, or very nearly so. What I can do is give a quote that would seem to explain it, at least up to a point. It's from an article by Wei Minglun and Yu Shiao-ling:  “This change is brought about by having the actor wear several layers of facial masks, all painted on very thin paper.”

If that destroys the magic for you, so be it. I think it’s OK. What's the point of living if we can't peel away delusions and see more clearly what it’s really all about?  (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  Go find your own answers.)  We’re supposed to gain in knowledge (experience, wisdom) and find better ways to live.  I don't know how I can explicate our human predicament any simpler (and better?) than that.  (And that was a rhetorical answer.  Go ask your own questions.)

Padampa uses it in a context of political leadership and, well, politics. Everyone knows that politicians change their faces to suit different needs and circumstances. We also know that the great changes they boast of, or promise for the future, are often little more than cosmetic or just simply false. The underlying malaise remains.  

What you will find at the link offered below is a translation-in-progress, which means I’m conscious of not succeeding in ironing out every problem, and of course — for those familiar with Padampa’s modes of expression this will go without saying —  there are lots of passages that would seem to require commentary. For the most part Padampa has encouraging words, but a couple of times Padampa lets the least hopeful cases know they’re going nowhere fast. I am completely unaware of any translation ever being made before this one, and I did it without assistants (I meant that word assistants). As for assistance, I looked for it wherever I could find it, even in YouTube, and yes, even in Wikipedia. Or, as the old Islamic saying attributed to Muhammad goes, “Seek knowledge, even in China.”  Life is, as Padampa says, “bright but not long lasting,” while the art is long. This we know, or surely ought to, even without relying on online resources.

To get there immediately, press here once or twice.

Biblio. ref.:

Wei Minglun and Shiao-ling Yu, "Pan Jinlian — The Story of One Woman and Four Me, a New Sichuan Opera," Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 1-48.

Dissolving the most fundamental delusion is what 'Buddha' means.  



  1. Here are some thoughts on this write-up. Hopefully, it reads short.


    Under Khamtön Yorpo (p. 2)

    “Some Tibetan teachers (ston-pa) specialize in the absence of cause and effect.”

    I do not understand what he is trying to conclude here.


    The following might be interesting to compare:

    Under Lama Dachungpa (p. 2): “Don't think, 'Here comes someone who like me has not gained accumulations.' It is the gaining of [those very] accumulations that brings you to the Dharma….,” and Under Dro Dragpa (p. 4): “The person who hasn't let go of thoughts for this life has no chance to practice Dharma. A man incapable of suffering knows no happiness ….”

    This saying is attributed to Antony the Great (died 356 C.E.), a Christian desert father:

    “He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temp¬tations no-one can be saved.’” (Note: cited from Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)


    Under Drochungpa (p. 3)

    “People who have not purified their own way of seeing, even the Muni cannot help. VirËpa. Here, here!”

    Am I wrong to identify this as one of the quintessential “hard sayings” in Buddhist practice?


    Under Pagor Dorje (p. 3)

    “Son, there are many Dharma practitioners, but few who have done the practices. How can they afford to remain ordinary in body and in speech if they have a heartfelt fear of death? They believe in Buddhahood without the least bit of effort paid for the practices, but how can that be? Now is the time you must make efforts in virtuous practices of body, speech and mind. The mirror that hasn't been wiped clean of corrosion doesn't reveal any reflection.”

    D. Martin, a scholar, has concluded in other places that Padampa’s priority for his students was practice. Is the practice unremittingly eremitic? By the way, given the importance of mirrors in the Bon religion, is there some link to that tradition here?


    Under Lama Palwang (p. 4)

    “If faith is something that can be taken from your mental continuum, what will help you on your way to Dharma? If the paint of veneration sticks, the Lamas will by all means take you under their care. If you have a grasp on certainty within, there is no Dharma that will not serve as a precept. If you have a bone in your own heart (if you have courage), no matter through which door you entered the Dharma, when you work for benefits they come.”

    This passage reminds the reader that what is being practiced is a religion, not a philosophy.


    Under Patron Nyitrikyab (p. 5)

    “The patronized priest is exalted by faith. Don't let yourself be controlled by profit and popularity. [ p. 4 2 9] Service [to Lamas] is done out of belief in them. Don't hope for a thank you. Dharma is for its own sake alone. Virtue is not some kind of comparison contest. The result of gathering accumulations is certain and inevitable, so have no regrets. An impure way of seeing things is sin's adhesive, so don't look for faults in the Lama.”

    A helpful bit of pastoral counseling, if read aright. How do you go about ending worry about “accumulations?” Stop worrying about not getting accumulations.


    Under To Zima Senggebar (p.5)

    “Nurture faith from the time of its youth. Let your energy rise beyond the ordinary. Keep even the smallest vows. Store up even the smallest advice. Whatever Dharma you know, put it into practice. Haven't you heard about the ocean that resulted from the accumulation of drops? Don't cast an eye on those who have results from their prior cultivation. Instead it would be good to cultivate at your own level.”

    Excellent advice all around, especially for those treading the eremtic path.


    To Lama Dönmowa (p. 6)

    Dispense with business outwardly. Dissolve grasping inwardly. What isn't necessary keep buried in a treasury. The more you make a big deal out of things, the more they serve the cause of sangsara. So settle yourself in mind as it 'ordinarily' is.

    Now D. Martin, said scholar, must surely be wondering how this statement relates to the extensive “treasury” tradition in Tibet---a tradition that many (then and now) spent and spend so much time trying to unearth.


    To Khyungpo Dorjedrag (p. 6)

    “Join both faith and energy under the same yoke. Join learning and experiential practice under the same yoke. Join experiential practice and realization under the same yoke. Join the precepts and certainty under the same yoke. Join emptiness and compassion under the same yoke. Join method and insight under the same yoke. Join benefiting your own practice and benefiting others to the same yoke. One ox without a second one under the yoke will not be able to pull the plow.”

    Hm. Is this an affirmation of a dualistic approach?


    To Naljor Wangdrag (p. 7)

    “Self and other are blended together, so there is nothing to do for the sake of sentient beings. Dharma and non-Dharma are blended together, so there is nothing to purposefully put into experiential practice. Realization is dissolved at its foundation, so there is no hope or fear for sangsara and nirvana. Neither you nor I know anything about Dharma, so let's just stay quiet.”

    I recall reading somewhere that Zhi Byed’s approach is “quietist.” Is this true?

    Many thanks for consideration.

  2. Dear Person,

    That's a lot here to answer! With a little imaginative megalomania (if you will be so magnanimous to permit me), I'd say that we have to understand each bit of Conch Fragments as a 'bit' of the Dharma aimed at one particular person at some particular point in their development. (The comparison with 'pastoral counseling' is an apt one in my opinion.) There is a 'fine tuning' going on in order to meet the needs of the aspirant. Sometimes some people need to 'tighten up' or become more zealous about doing the practices, especially in a purification phase (Pagor Dorjé).

    The 'quietism' that would seem to be implied in the name Zhi-byed (quieting, pacifying & assuaging are possible translations) is nothing of the kind most of the time. It's the kleshas that are supposed to be quieted up, not ordinary human activity. Strenuous activity may be a requirement for people in a purifying phase. They need to be courageous and do the hard work. Proposing moderation in asceticism is not quietism.

    Ssometimes antidotes have bad effects, especially if they go on getting applied when they are no longer needed (Naljor Wangdrag).

    It's true that of the two accumulations (merit & full knowledge) Padampa emphasizes the one that counters obscurations due to knowables. At the same time he often disses different persons' efforts to accumulate merit. The King of Western Tibet near the end of the 11th century was Tsedé, and he often becomes the butt of Padampa's critical comments. As King, he evidently often indulged in 'conspicuous merit-making' activities motivated by politics. Like we may read between the lines in this example:

    rtse lde kho bsod nams la dga' ste / bsod nams rtse lde'i gyod yin pa khos ma go.

    "King Tsedé delights in [acts of] merit, but that merit is Tsedé's regret he does not understand."

    There are a lot of passages in which Padampa seems to be speaking against so-called *merit* but he isn't implying that actual merit isn't worth gaining, or that it is unnecessary to the Buddhist Path. But yes, according to him, merit making done out of a desire for merit results in no merit.

    I'm afraid this is all imaginary. I'm not anything like Padampa and am unable to answer with the precise answers you may need as if I knew what those were. But perhaps using this scatter-shot approach to an answer will help someone else make sense of Padampa somewhere.

    Write more soon & I'll try & do the same.


  3. The word "pacifying" has euphemistic and specifically political nuance nowadays. It can mean eliminating the opposition (by force or by treachery). Is this what Padampa was advocating in confronting the miseries of life? Do the surviving texts indicate that he was exhorting to courage or to, in fact, ruthlessness?

  4. Dear True Person,

    Yes, thank you. I think you've put your finger precisely on the problem of Zhijé's 'appropriate translation' (making the label suit the character of the thing, rather than just hacking out a dictionary-equivalence type of translation). I believe that 'pacifying' is inappropriate (unless you want to talk about crying babies or, as in political newspeak, forceful military subjugation).

    I once preferred 'assuaging,' since it fits nicely with Zhijé healing/medical metaphors as well as quieting fears and other afflictive emotions (kleshas). I still think this translation might be suitable enough. One problem with it is that it would appear to mean only mollifying, not directly encountering and countering, the kleshas.

    That's why I'm most preferring 'peacemaking,' since it is an active stance that seeks nothing less than complete peace, taking the necessary measures for making peace happen. But still the meaning is malleable enough to cover different understandings that might be appropriate at different stages of the Path. And yes, I do believe that direct confrontation and the attempt to do away with the kleshas is one very important stage of the Buddhist Path as Padampa understood it. If by ruthlessness you mean an absence of compassion, I fail to see it. For any kind of forceful method to be employed in the Buddhist Path, compassion isn't just a recommendation. It's what has to motivate the use of the method (and not just serve as an 'after-the-fact' rationalization for it).

    People who want to 'stay ordinary' (in the sense Padampa uses it in Conch Fragments) would need to stay away from the likes of Padampa (but then it's unlikely they'd be drawn to him...) I think it's necessary to understand, too, that there is definitely some melodramatic bluster at play (the kind of histrionic [hyperbolic] overstatement that readers of classical Indian literature will find familiar), since Padampas actual actions hardly ever go 'over the top.' I'm thinking that such mildly 'forceful' methods as his generally are might only work on people devoting their lives to contemplation. Others might not be sensitive enough to notice them. (Am I also falling into the hyperbolic groove?)

    Some of this method might on occasion look like 'treachery' I suppose. But look again at what you've got to deal with. Your own internal rationalizations and/or fantasy life, your self-image. Your own emotional turmoil. The poor human has got this terrible problem that cries out for some kind of resolution. The crying out keeps them awake at night. It isn't so much a choice between being laid back and getting confrontational. It's more like which one when. That's my take. I don't want to praise or condemn Padampa's views on 'pastoral counseling.' I just want to see them, to see them by their logic, and especially their psycho-logical grounds.


  5. I guess I now find myself in a wait-and-see position. From what I've read in English so far, I agree that Padampa is not really "over the top." That said, I still fail to get a handle on the nuts and bolts. Let's ask the question this way: If Padampa's goal for human beings is benefit, and his goal for the mind is cleansing(?), what is Padampa's goal for kleshas? Is it to uproot them, or is it to heal them? For some reason, I feel the phrase "to appease them" fails to apply---just a gut reaction to the texts.

  6. That's funny. Just imagine. A bloke says to his full panoply of selfish desires (who have nicely gathered into the living room eager to hear his lecture), 'OK guys. If you'll agree to just disappear into complete and utter non-existence you'll get a nice reward for your trouble. But if you disagree with me, you'll get a week locked up in your rooms.'

    Appeasement? Well, not that a little carrot and stick might not have some real effect on them. Up to a point, I'd think.

  7. Short Person wrote:

    Pity the "panoply of selfish desires" who after all had "nicely gathered into the living room" (chuckle, chuckle and some hmmm). Wanna bet the motley mob then parried by looking the Ole Curmudgeon in the eye and asked, "And just what IS the reward WE are gonna get!?" Come to think of it, maybe they referred him to Mara, supervisor ("Look ..., we just work here!)

    It sounds like the honest answer is that Padampa subscribed to a South Asian, no-frills, eremitc approach. And while I don't buy into everything, there is something to be said for his cautioning his students to avoid "toying" with destructive behaviors and turning them into spoiled brats. Ah ..., somewhat comparable to "Old School" African American rearing: "This is MY house. If you don't want to follow the rules, go get your own apartment." In real world, this is a "hard saying."

    Many thanks for your replies. I look forward to being able to read more snippets---or more fragments---in the future.


  8. 6. A brother said to Abba Sisoes, 'How is it that the passions do not leave me?' The old man said, 'Their tools are inside you; give them their pay and they will go.' — Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 213.

    Under Khamtön Yorpo (p. 2)

    “Some Tibetan teachers (ston-pa) specialize in the absence of cause and effect.”

    Here 'cause and effect' are used in a Path context (Buddhist "inner science"). To translate 'cause and effect' it means, in effect, If you apply these methods you get these results. He's saying that some Tibetan teachers put the proverbial cart before the horse, and end up not getting anywhere as spiritual guides. Just one example of a number of his 'hard words' about the Tibetan Buddhism teachers of his day. (I want to imagine he would have had a hard time at some time with the learned Kadampa Geshés in Central Tibet, since they are the ones most often on the receiving end of these criticisms.)

    BTW, doesn't that expression "hard saying" come from Matthew 6:60 of the King James? There the disciples in Kfar Nachum (Capernaum) say about the words of Jesus saying they will have to devour His flesh, "This is an hard saying: who can hear it?"

    A very 'sacramental theology' context for this first usage of the term, I'd say.

  9. Dear Dan,

    You are probably right in regards to my usage of the expression "hard saying"---that I am pulling that verse from the gospel-book tradition. However, it is also true that it is used widely by Biblical scholars to identify those sayings by Jesus most challenging in his time as well as in the present. I believe it is virtually unanimous that they originated with Jesus and not some subsequent tradition. Frankly, I would not be surpised to learn that this phrase could be located in all kinds of contexts (folk, drama, theological, etc.) throughout Christian history.

    While reflecting on the possible "sacramental" context for this phrase, I was reminded that the actual source is John 6:60, not Matthew. And John's gospel does not play; it does not play in a big way. It is very interested in transformation and that transformation is not just a dream but a reality. The impossible presented as possible in Jesus' time was that God (or any god) "wanted" to become a lowly human. No cynicism: it was a very hard saying in Jesus' Jerusalem and even in the Roman Empire at large.

    I see you found Sisoes, one of my favorite desert guys/gals. In Ward's translation you also may want to check out Macarius the Great #3 for a somewhat long (about a full page) but wonderful story of another desert father who out-maneuvers none other than Satan himself---not by thumping the demon over the head but by counseling a struggling practitioner. Really worth reading.

    Well, off I go to familiarize myself with the Kadampa tradition. I would not be surprised to learn, however, that all traditions had their own critiques of Padampa's methods. I doubt that the Kadampa were the only ones "too learned in the jargon of Dharma" in Padampa's day ... and then, there were all those translators who came upon the scene subsequently ....

    That said, what can be said in reply to the criticism that Padampa's approach was in no way consistent but a hodge-podge of this-and-that teaching/technique picked up here-and/or-there during his travels?

  10. Sorry I confused my Gospels and put Matthew in place of John. My mistake. I will try to be more careful!

    I think that in Padampa's time the Kadampa were the only sect that had achieved a public profile as such. There were no people calling themselves Kagyüpas, and if there were they were most likely Kadampas. Apparently the public wasn't aware yet there was a significant sectarian entity called Sakyapa (of course there were people from Sakya, and the monastery must have been growing at the time).

    At least two or 3 points on the hodge-podge issue.

    1. Life in its ordinary scattered experience is a hodge-podge, all the more so for the world traveler. That much appears true.

    2. Buddhism, as I see it, has never sought consistency if that means always presenting the same message to every person. The Buddha adjusts His teachings to the level of the aspirant (the famous vision of the lotus pond just after the Enlightenment episode). This sort of flexibility is built into the Buddhist system from the word go. Other traditions with other ideas about universally applicable and/or immutable doctrines or dogma will inevitably have trouble with Buddhist skill-in-means.

    3. I don't see it, as far as Padampa is personally concerned. But then again, I'm always searching for the consistency and integrity I'm confident is there. I'll admit that means I'm biased. But I think there is a positive side to this particular bias, which is that I'm not likely to be very quick to stop trying to understand Padampa because I think he represents a hodge-podge of this and that (things that not only shouldn't but can't go together).

    Stuff that is truly integrated in one's own life and practice is, well, integral, and not a 'syncretic' type of mixture. But then that's a question of perception, and people with puristic visions are likely to see impurities/admixtures everywhere, and spend their whole lives seeing them and shuddering.

    Do you see evidence of New Age superficiality in Padampa? I think more likely he'll be a victim of superficial New Age appropriation. But then who hasn't been?

  11. Dear Dan,

    Actually, I detect no superficiality in Padampa. My perception is of a man from South India somehow finding himself on the rocky, yet very traditional, path of a renunciate in South Asia. Scholar Bronkhorst and others describe the the original expectation as a person stripping himself down to bare minimums and then heading north---to die. If this is true, lo and behold! Padampa was just so ... ordinary. And yet, some Tibetans reported to the contrary, that he was special, and not only because he managed to avoid dying of the cold if nothing else.

    The greatest problem, of course, is the lack of historical information and an overabundance of legendary speculation. [Footnote: I know I'm treading on some thin ice here; historiography differs between cultures.] It really is very frustrating. What is this brahamin, from dowwwwn-south India, gone Buddhist but living "sadhu," doing in Tibet teaching in the Tibetan language (after an 10-year-plus sabbatical at Wu-Tai Shan, China, thank you very much)?

    Why did Tibetans care? And why, by the way, do I care? Some Tibetans, in my opinion, found him to be authentic, the "real thing." At the risk of sounding crude, he was found to be a real Indian from a real India presenting real meditation techniques that really worked (really very simple to learn) from a real Buddhist tradition. As for myself, I find his teaching---somehow---approximates the Christian value of "Seek ye the kingdom and God first, and all these things will be yours as well." It appears that Padampa wasn't just desconstructing in order to remake some other culture's values into another image under its his own control (New Age). I also get the sense that his deconstructing was not just to avoid accountability and/or questioning (skepticism, post-modernism). In my opinion, Padampa was trying to figure out how to de-clutter, a la South Asian spirituality; no mean task given the high value for complexity and multiplicity in his culture. And what did he discover over time and several experiments? Perhaps that attention to/attending to rather than ignoring of/igniting of the suffering(s) was the answer, not only for himself but, to his surprise, for many other people as well.

  12. Dear Dan,

    Before discussion comes to an end on this post, I want to raise this issue as I found it in the write-up on ethnicity:

    "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 ... 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 as 'counterintuitive methods' resembling homeopathic treatments ... How can a disease be cured by administering something resembling that disease??)."

    A more important question for me is how Padampa could just observe this event without an attempt to intervene. Do I also sense a lack of remorse? Am I reading this aright?

    I hope I'm not being too judgmental or naive. After all, Milarepa's career was launched by *his own family's* treachery. I often get the impression that all the peoples in this whole cultural context have a strong streak of relentless ruthlessness: yes, towards others but even more so, unbelievably, towards each other. That said, I still consider Padampa's response morally unsatisfying and, frankly, scary. Is it possible to say how Padampa could possibly square this response (and live with himself) given Mahayana imperatives?

  13. Wait a minute. Wouldn't the word 'ruthless' apply so much better to the Khotanese marauders than to the solitary meditator up in his cave above the village? And what's a 550 year old (well, let's say 80-year-old) hermit to do under such circumstances? What would he gain (on any level) from beating himself up with remorse?

    And no, I personally don't see anything exceptionally ruthless about any 'eastern' cultures (far, south or middle) that would distinguish them from, for example, places I've visited in the U.S.

    How are we supposed to learn from life experiences? (Is it impossible that one might learn unexpected lessons from them? That things may not go 'by the book'?)

    Do we respond to ruthlessness with ruthlessness? A good question wherever we might live. A tough one, OK.

  14. Dear Dan,

    I recall your response to a previous post by earlyTibet regarding some impressions in the past about the Khotanese being always happy, prosperous, etc., and (therefore) whether these mauraders could have really been those "proverbially mellow" Khotanese. I believe both he and I consider the point taken; there was reporting to the contrary---by a third party no less---rather graphic. Are people, people, all over the world? Well, yes.

    Padampa was a person too. He may have come to a point where he no longer beat himself over it, but I find it disturbing that he reports no beating at all. Surely, his students would have benefitted from a discussion about how to respond to this situation even if only from 20/20 hindsight. And maybe there was discussion; what we have here, after all, is a fragment. I suspect that situations like this happened quite often to yogis and that these incidents were either not reported or under-reported.

    If I have offended by using the word "ruthless" inappropriately, then I apologize. What, then, is the better word that describes some of the steel edges in Padampa's approach and, yes, in Tibetan culture at large (a culture impacted by Eastern and Western influences).

  15. If you haven't seen it, I much recommend a feature movie entitled The King of Masks (1996). A brief trailer may be seen here:, but you really have to watch the whole thing.


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