Buddhist Feminist Art

Feminism Awakens In Himalayan Buddhist Art and Meditation

 “She has acquired the reputation and recognition of delivering hard financial and concrete results in a career devoted to the advancement of young women.”

Tara Sculpture

Tara Sculpture

“Our temple is at the heart of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery  Since this is a Nunnery, the inner decoration of the temple reflects female embodiments of Enlightenment – Tara, Vajrayogini and so on – and this is especially emphasized in the exquisite murals around the walls and the rounded stained glass windows. There are walls dedicated to senior nun saints surrounding Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahaprajapati who was the Buddha’s stepmother and the first nun. These are rarely portrayed in Buddhist art. Also there is the great yogin Milarepa surrounded by his female disciples. When people enter they immediately feel a sense of peace together with gentle but powerful feminine energy: they feel awed and uplifted.”

By G. Roger Denson  Huffington Post [Excerpts below]

In mid-January the British-born Buddhist nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo — the closest thing we have to a Thomas Merton figure today — spoke before a sold-out audience at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Arts in Manhattan. The nun of 50 years is known not only for having spent twenty years of her life meditating in a cave, but for her founding of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for young Buddhist nuns in the Kangra Valley of the Indian state Himachal Pradesh, a two-hour drive from the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala. Accompanying her and providing locutory support was the art historian and former Rubin Museum curator, Kathryn Selig Brown. The topic was Jetsunma’s approach to visualization in meditation and the overall place of art in its embodiment and enhancement of dharma.

In Himalayan sacred art, erotism, like all other visualizations, activates the mind’s eye — the eye of inward perception — to transform our external perception of our own presumed singular and disparate realities into bridges to endless other individualities that together build the continuity that binds us as a whole.

M. Gotami

M Gotami

 

2 White Taras

Two White Taras

But discussions of magical and metaphysical surrealism, or the art of spectacle and erotism are not what concerns the impressively serene and pragmatic Jetsunma, as she is called by everyone to her apparent satisfaction. Even when discussing a topic like visualization, she remains focused on the liberation attained in the process, not the abstract or structural, the psychological or the mystical methods and effects. Her priorities are rooted in the social implications of Buddhism, which is attested to by her early development and chosen life focus. It was at the age of 20 in 1964 that she became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Thanks to at least two biographies written about her since, she has acquired the reputation and recognition of delivering hard financial and concrete results in a career devoted to the advancement of young women. Hers is the kind of character that proved itself capable of navigating through all the cultural, ideological and political differences that obscure right living, or at least the pathways to right living that manage to run through the bureaucracy and prejudice that characterize life in the northern border region of Himachal Pradesh, India.

Perhaps we all should have expected an espousal of feminism to come from Jetsunma. After all, she became a Buddhist nun just when her native England and the West as a whole was undergoing a radical feminization of society. Why shouldn’t feminism now be brought to fruition among Buddhists, who at least in their contemporary incarnations count among the most civilized and proto-democratic peoples the world has known. (Although this wasn’t always the case.) Of course, it should be no less remarkable to witness feminism manifest in what may be the world’s only Himalayan Buddhist monastery devoted to visualizing predominantly female deities, yoginis, and bodhisattvadevi, than it is in the art world, where galleries such a Gagosian still are resistant to some of the most significant developments in contemporary art because they are made by women, or because they will earn less. Of course, there is the nature of the entities that Jetsunma commissions for her art that ordinarily belie feminism and activism. Not only are they entirely archaic in origin and originally designed to placate the patriarchal sensibility written into and legislated by Buddhist social structures.