Friday, February 19, 2021

Alchi Padampa's Meaning: A New Light to Shine on it

I remember being perplexed over and over again by this particular painting of Padampa, not only because of its unusual iconography but perhaps even more by its placement. Not that there is the least dishonor in being depicted anywhere at all on an image of the Bodhisattva of insightful wisdom, philosophical acumen and learning. But down there practically between the ankles? He has enough Padampa characteristics there can be not much doubt it’s him. Notice the earring-enlarged earlobes, the white blanket loosely enshrouding his basically unclothed body, the intensely staring eyes, the meditation strap holding up his knees and his legs crossed at the ankles. All that says Padampa. Everything checks out. But his hands might tell a different story. He is holding what has been described as a stick in his left hand* and what could be a stem of a plant in his right. We’ll focus on the stick.
(*Linrothe, p. 366: “a long white stick that may well be intended to indicate a shinbone horn.” Ham’s book, p. 53, calls it a flute.)

This painting is located in the temple of Alchi in Ladakh, in a justly famous three-storey temple there called the Sumtsek, or Triple Stack. It has three quite tall standing Bodhisattva images, and Padampa is located in the “populated robes” of one of them, Manjushri. See how Padampa floats there alone at a lower level than all the Great Siddhas that inhabit the cloth above him. He is even further marked out by being a larger size than any of them are.

Years in the business of Tibetan Studies should have made me immune — you do get used to having previous ideas turned on their heads and inside out — but I was sorely unprepared for the double-dose of shock I felt when an email popped up in my mailbox from a friend thousands of miles away. The email from author and translator Sarah Harding was about a visionary practice belonging to the Shangpa Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism, one that involves envisioning Padampa. The practice is detailed in a text that preserves some of the earliest Shangpa teachings, one attributed to Sukhāsiddhī, woman disciple of Virūpa. In a manner reminiscent of better-known guruyoga practices, the Great Siddha Virūpa is seen as identical to Hevajra. He sends down blessings in the form of a string of seed syllables and divine nectar that are then channeled by means of a cane flute held by Padampa directly into the opening called the Brahma aperture at the top of the head of the visualizer. 

(*Bear in mind that both Virūpa and Sukhāsiddhī were among the fifty-four Indian gurus of Padampa; ten of those Indian gurus were women. You heard me right.)

A few comments: Obviously the visionary practice text is a lot more involved than this, and in fact it is all about those confidential teachings the Vajra Vehicle is famous for, more particularly Completion Stage practices resembling the better known “Six Yogas of Naropa.” If you want to know more, turn to a qualified professional, because my point is not to go into any of that right now. The thing that turned my mind around was the cane flute (sba’i gling-bu) he holds in his left hand. Some people of past and present do mistake the cane for the reed, both being swamp plants, but reeds are flat, while cane has rounded stems that can get large enough to make easily hollowed out tubes suitable for making flutes. I myself, as a child, once tried following a book’s directions for making a flute from cane I picked myself, but making it make the right notes turned out to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. This was not my first or last failure. Wait, let’s go back to the points I wanted to make.

The episode of imaginative visualization suddenly made me see something in the Alchi Padampa I’d never seen before, so let me see if you see it too. Padampa is depicted as a conduit for the blessings of the group of Great Siddhas, a role he accomplishes by making use of the cane flute as a kind of blowgun to inject blessings into the internal energy system of the practitioner. But the receiving person doesn't need to be visualized or depicted in Alchi. He or she is right there on the spot, seeking blessings just the way worshippers often do when, for instance, they place their heads below the extended right foot of Târâ or walk underneath the bookshelves that hold the scriptural Volumes. This would appear to be one of those instances in which a highly esoteric practice of the Highest Yoga Tantras is at the same time a popular devotional practice. There is nothing low or demeaning about being a conduit for the blessings of the Great Siddhas, is there?

And for anyone who might still harbor doubts about Padampa’s exaltation, I would ask you to have a look at the illustrated robes of another giant Bodhisattva in the Sumtsek, the Avalokiteshvara (Ham’s book, p. 164), find out what you find in the exact same position between the Bodhisattva’s shins, and tell me if you don’t see a painting of an enshrined standing Shakyamuni Buddha. I think we have to find better ways to think about worshippers’ interactions with icons and how such considerations might determine their placement.

•  •  •

Readings and Viewings:

Chiara Bellini, “Some Other Pieces of the Puzzle: The Restoration of the Alchi Sumtsek (A lci gSum btsegs) by Tashi Namgyal (bKra shis rNam rgyal) and Other Considerations on the Stratification and Reinterpretation of the Paintings of this Temple,” Inner and Central Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 2 (special issue: Judith A. Lerner and Annette L. Juliano, eds., New Research on Central Asian, Buddhist and Far Eastern Art and Archaeology, Brepols 2019), pp. 247-266. Thanks to A.H. for bringing this to my attention. Now I will have to read it. I tried to list the newest publications, on the assumption that they will contain references to earlier publications so I don’t need to include them here.

Peter van Ham with Amy Heller and Likir Monastery, Alchi, Treasure of the Himalayas: Ladakh's Buddhist Masterpiece, Hirmer (Munich 2018), especially plates on pp. 53, 248-249, 384.

There are a number of albums about Alchi published so far, and more are on the way. This one is more recent and available, and probably less pricey than the others. They all have magnificent photographs of the art. On p. 375 is a damaged but especially intriguing 2nd Alchi painting of Padampa, this one from the interior of a Chorten as part of an exclusive grouping of four icons. Two of them are unidentified Vajra Masters, the other local tradition identifies as Rinchen Zangpo and Naropa, and although the one is likely to be Jigten Gonpo, the other is most definitely Padampa. This Padampa is of interest because despite the damage it appears to depict the cane flute, and it also has in the right hand a very clear sprig of some herb, something not so visible in the Sumtsek portrait. I wish I had something to say about the botanical question and I haven't come to any conclusions of my own about the dates of the Alchi Padampa, but let’s say either late 12th or late 16th centuries. Ham's book suggests, as part of its discussion on p. 53, that the Padampa may have been added to a previously blank part of the painting during the 16th century renovation of the Sumtsek Temple.

Sarah Harding, Niguma, Lady of Illusion, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2010). 

If you want to know about the Shangpa Kagyü and its teachings, I send you to this. Niguma and Sukhāsiddhī were two outstanding women leaders at the very origins of the Shangpa lineage.

Amy Heller & Shawo Khacham, “Tibetan Inscriptions at Alchi, Part I: Towards a Reassessment of the Chronology,” contained in: G. Hazod & W. Shen, eds., Tibetan Genealogies: Studies in Memoriam of Guge Tsering Gyalpo (1961-2015), China Tibetology Publishing (Beijing 2018), pp. 535-552.

Rob Linrothe, “Group Portrait: Mahâsiddhas in the Alchi Sumtsek,” contained in: R. Linrothe & H. Sørensen, eds., Embodying Wisdom, Seminar for Buddhist Studies (Copenhagen 2001), pp. 191-206.

Although this article is all about the dhoti of Mañjushri, the very subject of this blog, there is no suggestion on the role Padampa might play in it. Its main value to my mind are in its well grounded and persuasive reflections on the needs of patrons, artists and the viewing Buddhist public, that would explain why the Great Siddhas are being portrayed as a whole group, why it is that so few of the Great Siddhas can be identified by their individual characteristics (maybe eight of them have identifiable iconographic features, and although cartouches were included so that names could be supplied, there is no trace of them ever being written). This author takes the people standing on the ground into account as few others have done, and my own thinking builds on it.

Rob Linrothe, “Padampa Sangye,” contained in: Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 364-367. 

On p. 364 is a superior print of the Alchi Sumtsek’s Padampa. Figure no. 10.9 in this volume is of special interest as it depicts what might well be a cane flute rather than a shinbone-flute (rkang-gling) as would be the common assumption based on Chö ideas about his iconography (for a closer view, see the enlarged detail of that painting on p. 108). 

Christian Luczanitz, “New Research on Alchi Monastery, Ladakh.” Posted on the YouTube channel of The Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford on February 8, 2021. 

I also recommend a visit to C.L.'s website. Go here and scroll down a bit before losing an afternoon or two just looking at the photographs of the most impressive works of art. There are pages devoted entirely to Alchi, but I have faith you will find them yourself if you really want to. Tibetanists will want to take special notice of the entire fragmentary text of the long patron's inscription in the Great Stupa.

Dan Martin, “Padampa Sangye: A History of Representation of a South Indian Siddha in Tibet,” contained in: Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Rubin Museum of Art (New York 2006), pp. 108-123. This has not a word about the flute.

Su-kha-siddhi’i Lo-rgyus / Rgya Gzhung / Gsang-sgrub Lte-ba Sprul ’Khor / Dbang-chog-rnams, contained in: Gdams-ngag Mdzod, vol. 12, pp. 279–96. Plus another brief text in the same volume: Sukha-siddhi’i Zhal-gdams-kyi Skor dang / Gzer Gsum Gdams-pa-rnams [Bde Gsal ’Od-’bar]. 

For the English we look forward to Sarah Harding’s translation. Here is the most relevant passage with its reference to the cane flute, clipped from the digital etext supplied by TBRC:

For some earlier Tibeto-logic blog entries about Padampa's iconography see these:

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There have been very many new and enlightening publications related to Padampa and Zhijé tradition in recent months, so many I was contemplating a blog just on that subject, but right now I am pleased to inform you, assuming you haven’t heard, about a complete, first-ever translation of the volume on Zhijé from the Treasury of Precepts, or Gdams-ngag Mdzod done by Sarah Harding — 

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, compiler, Zhije, the Pacification of Suffering, from The Treasury of Precious Instructions: Essential Teachings of the Eight Practice Lineages of Tibet Volume 15, Snow Lion (Boulder 2019), a hardback book in 668 numbered pages. Sarah Harding is translating a volume of Shangpa Kagyü texts from the same collection.

Addition (March 6, 2021)

I inexplicably neglected to list an article that is precisely on the subject of this blog. I mean Rob Linrothe's “Strengthening the Roots: An Indian Yogi in Early Drigung Paintings of Ladakh and Zangskar,” Orientations (May 2007), pp. 65-71. Now I have to go find it and remind myself about what it says. Sorry about this. It does depict several other early Ladakhi representations I didn’t mention, and emphasizes that these largely correspond to the earlier Zhijé types of representations, and not the later Cutting type with damaru and thighbone.

Additional addition (March 9, 2021)

I should not have neglected some further examples and discussions of Padampas in early Drigung-related Ladakhi sites in Rob Linrothe, “Conservation Projects in Ladakh, Summer 2008,” Orientations, vol. 40, no. 8 (November 2009), pp. 91-99, and especially pp. 98-99. Thanks to R.L. for bringing it to my attention.

From Saspol Cave

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