Lost in the Tibetan In-Between

Tibetan Thangka - Heruka and ConsortIt’s one of those mornings when I start out chugging my steamboat up the mighty river but wind up off in some backwater contemplating the whirlpools, marveling at the synchronicity of life and art or… whatever.

As I listened to Liberation Upon Hearing in the Between: Living with the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” I decided I needed to see the text and the art Thurman was clearly referring to. When I started in on the Kindle version this morning and saw the tangka* of the fierce deity Chemchok Heruka, I nearly died — we have one just like it hanging in our living room. Photo session! Resulting photo on the right with central detail below.

Of course, it turns out not to be exactly like the one in the Newark Museum, but close enough to keep me trying to learn more.

Tibetan Thangka - Heruka and Consort (detail)

Our guy appears to be Cakrasamvara, from the Amitabha or Padma clan of Buddhas. This heruka emphasizes the subjugation of the ego through the transmutation of passion — the heat of passion is transmuted into the warmth of compassion.

His blue color symbolizes the cosmic… principle of space devoid of all qualities. Passion is the principle of the padma family, to which Cakrasamvara belongs.

He has twelve arms and four faces; the four faces are those of the other four buddha families. His main hands hold the vajra and bell signifying nonduality. His other hands hold attributes [tools] such as an elephantskin shawl (representing fearlessness), axe, hooked knife, trident, skull handdrum, a… (skull embellished trident), the head of brahma, etc.

He wears the waist garland of fifty-two heads and the tigerskin skirt of a warrior… He stands in the dance posture of a heruka — having transmuted passion into dharmic [learning] energy, he now dances with it [and in ours, copulates with the red dakini]. He wears bone and jewel ornaments. His union with his consort is the union of the intelligence and the energy aspects of the padma principle, the union of the wisdom of nirvana [enlightenment] and samsara [worldly sorrows].

He stands on Mahadeva and Umadevi, the live bodies of ego. They rest on the solar disc which represents prajna [wisdom] and the lotus of passionlessness.**

When you die, if you cannot accept the invitation of the mild Buddhas to liberation and if you then run the risk of losing control and falling under the compulsion of subconscious drives of lust and aggression and you therefore begin to panic,  the Buddhas adopt a ferocious approach, forcefully breaking into your awareness and offering you a powerful escort through a realm that has suddenly become frightening. If you study the art work (such as that above) during your lifetime, you will recognize them and let them guide and protect you. [from Thurman]


*tangka: Tibetan paintings on banners, used for teaching and meditation

**From a description of a different tangka in “Visual Dharma: The Buddhist Art of Tibet” by Chogyan Trungpa, Ripoche.

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