An artist stretches a canvas on a wooden frame, pulling the cloth until it is taut like a drum. She primes it with gesso, then faces the pristine, blank expanse. Beside her are brushes of varying size, colors in tubes or jars, a rag, a square of glass or an old china plate…..a palette for mixing colors. Hours will pass in silence, with only the dab and whisper of a brush, then the swish of it in the water jar where she washes it clean between one hue and the next.
On the canvas she’s searching out a form that first stirred in the mind’s eye, an idea pressing to be made visible. Every so often she pauses, steps back to look. A moment dawns when the image seems to “come alive.” She can meet its emerging presence and, if she remains open, willing to gaze and to contemplate, the image may give back to her something more than she had imagined. It will lead her understanding in ways she couldn’t foresee and didn’t expect.
In the West ever since the Renaissance, we tend to regard the artist’s imagination as unique and individual, the source of a highly prized originality. But that hasn’t been the view in all times and places. A traditional painter of Tibetan thangkas, for example, would approach his art quite differently.
He too stretches a cotton cloth, pulling it taut to a wooden frame. He primes the cloth with animal glue and gesso, and polishes the surface with a smooth stone. Sitting simply on the floor, he too faces the pristine, blank expanse, its wooden frame propped between his lap and a wall. Yet the image he will paint does not come from his own unique imagination. To him, rooted deeply in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it comes from the vast mind of wisdom itself.
According to long established canons, he begins by drawing a grid for the sacred figure he will paint…..a Buddha, bodhisattva, or one of many other beings in the visionary abundance of Tibetan art. This iconometric grid ensures all parts of the figure will be in proportion, guiding even the symmetry of the face. But once the artist has drawn the entire figure with a brush, in fine and flowing lines, he will rub the grid away.
Then he is ready to paint. Traditionally his pigments are minerals…..azurite for blue sky, malachite for green earth…..ground by hand on a stone mortar. He mixes the powder in a small bowl with a liquid binder of hide glue, to a consistency like buttermilk. He paints the base colors of sky, earth, clouds, lotus throne, body, and halo of the figure. Later he will add shading in thinner layers of color. In fine detail he will paint the garments, hands, feet, and face of the deity, leaving the eyes for last. Only when everything else is complete will he paint the iris and pupils, and “open the eyes.”
A few decades ago, it was rare to see much Tibetan art here in the West. But affordable reproductions began to appear, and one early poster of White Tara still hangs above my desk in monastery. She sits in the full lotus posture of meditation, a flower lush as a peony beside her tilted face. The eyes are peaceful, and more than two, with one in her brow, one in the palm of each hand, one in the sole of each foot, seven eyes in all. Clearly her image was made with symbolic intent and evokes the mystery of an all-seeing wisdom.
It is said that Tara was born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion.Overcome by the vast ocean of suffering that seems without end, he broke down and wept for all beings. As the tears ran down his face, White Tara arose from one drop, Green Tara arose from another, to help in the liberation of all who suffer.
She appears in many variations…..twenty-one are named in her litany of praises. But it is Green Tara our Tibetan artist has chosen to paint. She sits with her right foot extended, ready to step into action. Her right hand reaches out in the gesture of giving, and at heart level, her left thumb and ring finger touch in the gesture of refuge. Green Tara has two eyes. And when the artist has “opened” the eyes, she gazes directly at him with a gentle smile.
When the painting is finished, rather than the artist signing his name on the back, a lama will write three syllables corresponding to the body, speech, and mind blessings of a deity: Om Ah Hung. The painting is cut free from the wooden frame and sewn into a frame of brocade, with rods so it can be rolled up like a scroll. Thangkas are easy to move from one temple or one nomad tent to another. Or farther even, into another country and culture.
Here in the West, of all the deities now seen in a wealth of Tibetan art, Green Tara is one we see most often. We may feel drawn to her image even if we’re not familiar with the long tradition that brings her to us from Tibet, from earlier roots in India, and ultimately from a timeless source. But a few stories of Tara have also made their way here. And a story too paints an image in the mind, one we can easily enter.
There was an old woman who had to beg for alms. She went from one door to the next, and one day she came to the humble hut of a scholar.
“My daughter is of an age to be married,” she said, “but I am so poor, she has nothing! Can you help us?”
The scholar saw the shadows of hunger in the old woman’s face, and he wanted to help. But he had little himself, only the robe he wore and the one book he was studying, a sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom.
“I have nothing to give you,” he said sadly. “But…wait here a moment.”
He turned and began to murmur, speaking softly as if to someone close to him inside the hut. The old woman stood at the door looking in. She saw no one else there, but on the wall was an image of Tara. In her own hard life, the old woman had never seen anyone like this lady, seated upon a painted lotus rising from a painted lake. Her body was the radiant green of forests and fresh leaves. She wore all the adornments of a sublime being. In the light from the doorway, her painted gold and jewels shone. Even her scarves seemed to shimmer in a warm wind.
The scholar went on murmuring to Tara,“Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Soha, Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Soha…” and strangely, his hut did not seem so small anymore. Tara held in her hand the curving stem of a lotus, its petals blue as the painted sky. The old woman thought she could see the flower shift and change, blooming before her eyes. Then, the painting came to life.
The Lady Tara lifted her hands and took the crown of jewels and flowers from her head. Smiling, she removed her golden earrings, her necklaces of many gems. They tinkled and rang like bells. She took off her golden armlets, even the jewels upon her feet. She unwound her flowing scarves, and took off her silken garments of many colors. All these she gave to the scholar.
The scholar turned around and gave them to the old woman.
Overcome with wonder, the old woman felt the weight of the gold and jewels in her hands, the soft silks, and her eyes flooded with tears. This gift would set her daughter free from poverty.
From that day on, the painting in the scholar’s hut remained as it was. Tara’s hand was still open. Her body of bliss, green as forests and fresh leaves, was empty of all adornments. She wore nothing.
The scholar wrote poems to her. He strung his praises together like garlands of pearls. Still she remained naked. And when he looked up from the pages of his sutra, he found the Perfection of Wisdom herself in the image upon his wall.
Originally this story was told of a man named Chandragomin who lived in seventh-century India. He was a Buddhist lay master, a well-respected scholar, and a devotee of Avalokiteshvara and of the Savioress, Tara. Thus he had a painting of Tara in the hut where he lived. He favored the Mind-Only school of Mahayana Buddhism and studied the PRAJNAPARAMITA or PERFECTION OF WISDOM scriptures. He also wrote many praises.
In the story, he reflects for us a quality of knowledge that is both learned and compassionate. He responds to the old woman in her need. Though he has nothing material to give her, he does have a heart and mind devoted to wisdom and he knows the deity, Tara. So he turns to her image on the old woman’s behalf, just as the old woman has come to him, begging on behalf of her daughter. There is no selfishness here.
Meanwhile, the artist who made the scholar’s painting remains invisible. He is almost irrelevant, as in other stories from both East and West where a statue or a painting comes to life and speaks, weeps, or even bleeds. The miracle is never due to the art itself. What matters is that the image has become a vessel, and through it a living mystery and power beyond the image, beyond both artist and viewer, can make its presence directly felt and known.
Calling on a boundless compassion to manifest in any way that is needed, using the mantra of Tara, is not something only a scholar would do. The sacred syllables of Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Soha are as known and loved among all Tibetans as Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara.Tara’s nature is equally boundless, and without delay she responds.
In fact, the green hue of her body in the painting expresses an active quality of wisdom. As one prayer says, she made a vow “to fulfill the activity of the all the Buddhas without exception.” In the mandala of the Five Buddha Families, there are five qualities of wisdom, each with its color and element. Green belongs to the Karma family, all-accomplishing wisdom, whose element is air. Thus in her green form Tara embodies an awakened wisdom that is free to move anywhere, swiftly, like the wind.
Her dynamic energy moves through the painting in the story, and a boundary dissolves between what we think of as real and what we think of as only imagined. Tara reaches out through a surface of pigments applied to a piece of cotton cloth, and gives all her gold and jewels away. Something of great value passes from the envisioned, symbolic realm into the hands of an ordinary human reality.
The old woman waiting at the door could be one of the beatitude’s “poor in spirit,” one who is so surrendered in need she is utterly open, ready to receive. And so she is blessed. She receives what the scholar conveys to her, not an armload of concepts but tangible symbols of sublime beauty and worth. If the gift now laid in her hands will relieve her material poverty and allow her daughter’s future to blossom, that would be generosity enough. But Tara gives even more, for in Buddhist art the jewels worn by such a deity express the splendor of enlightenment.
Thus the painter would mix a fine powder of gold…..the supreme metal…..with his liquid binder of hide glue. With this he would paint the crown, earrings, and necklaces, as well as the fine rays that stream from Tara’s body outward to all beings. Then he would burnish the gold to a shine that catches the light. Symbolically adorned this way, a deity is shown in the form of Sambhogakaya, or Body of Bliss. This is the luminous clarity and exaltation of wisdom. Tara has no hesitation in the story. She freely offers her own radiance. What could be of greater value? As we know also in the West, “Wisdom is more precious than pearls, and nothing else is so worthy of desire.”
Along the path of our own awakening, a thangka is considered a support. In every detail its beauty is meant to nourish the process, as are all the forms we see in Tibetan art and spiritual practice. Not all the meditation methods rely on visualization, but many do. And a painting helps us to get acquainted with a deity whose image we will generate in our inner vision…..the body color, posture, symbolic gestures, and objects. Lamas advise us not to see the inner image as if made of material substance, like pigments on a cloth, but as translucent, made of colored light. In this sense it is insubstantial, like a rainbow. Yet neither is the image to be seen as “only imagined.” Instead, it is a display of wisdom’s awareness within our own mind.
Deities, as we see them, are not essentially superior individuals living in faraway worlds that sometimes come to the rescue of human beings, even if their manifestations may give that impression. If we were to meet such a deity in a dream, we would feel joy and devotion, but we’d also feel very sure of our own separate existence. However, in truth, the person perceiving the deity and the deity would both be manifestations from the same inexpressible essence, the mind itself.
From an absolute point of view, because of her nature itself as an awakened deity, Tara could not be other than the nature of our own mind. This nature of mind is beyond concepts, the domain of awareness itself. And this awareness, inherent in everyone beyond any mental elaborations, also is Tara in the ultimate domain.
In the smaller realm of the story, the old woman has none of the scholar’s knowledge and understanding. For her there is only a painting. But the painting is a sacred mirror. And through it, Tara’s generosity pours out to her from a wisdom free of duality. The gift pours out to us also, to any of us who stand with the old woman on the packed dirt of the threshold, looking in. We might have come begging ourselves, in our own spiritual poverty, our lack and longing, our need for sustenance and support. Like the old woman, we may never have imagined receiving a gift of such value, nor that its worth somehow affirms our own.
One can imagine the story goes on to tell us: As we know from the original story, the painting in his hut remained as it was after Tara gave all her gold and jewels away. From Chandragomin’s time, this miraculous painting was known as “The Tara Without Ornaments,” and “Naked Tara, Bestower of Gifts.” Others are said to have seen it even centuries later. Chances are we won’t see one like it today, the image was so unusual, perhaps never seen before or since in Tara’s traditional iconography.
Yet we can see it with contemplative eyes. For the scholar and for us too, there is a further gift in the painting’s nakedness. On an ultimate level, Tara is the perfection of wisdom, or prajnaparamita. This is the emptiness of the Dharmakaya, or Absolute Body, the body of ultimate truth. How can this possibly be portrayed? A naked image is one symbol, like the primordial Buddha we sometimes see in Tibetan art, clothed only in the deep blue of his body, high in the sky above everything else. This is not a mere nothingness. The nature of mind, perfection of knowledge, and emptiness are, in fact, equivalent terms. All past buddhas have attained buddhahood by realizing emptiness (or realizing the nature of the mind). It is the same for present buddhas and will be the same for future buddhas. Thus, Tara…..the Tara beyond time, space, and all concepts…..is the mother of all buddhas.
At the end of a meditation, having visualized a deity with devoted concentration, one will then dissolve the image. One lets it go, into emptiness. When an artist rinses her brush in a jar, clouds of pigment will stain the water, but this colored light dissolves in the open space of the mind, leaving it clear. We rest there awhile, in the non-conceptual clarity of our own being.
We have within us the same pristine expanse where all images and realities arise, to dissolve, and arise, again and again. This emptiness is not the void we tend to dread…..a dark deprivation, a final absence of value. Rather, it is a mysterious source of abundance. It remains beyond images, even when they arise from its essence and glow with its nature, as noble Tara does.
May the gold of her compassion flow through us and all beings, until we are fully awake…..