How art can be alchemical and alchemy can be artful...
I was in LA last week. One evening before dinner, my friend and I walked into a bookstore to browse. It was a beautiful shop, carefully curated and full of art books. He handed one to me, "This is for you."
The book is called Tantra Song (selected by Franck André Jamme). It's a collection of rare, abstract Tantric paintings originating in India in the 17th century. The images are meditational supports that represent states of consciousness in the Tantric practice. By meditating on them with some knowledge of the symbolism, the viewer can begin to penetrate the mystery of the Tantra, that alchemical, esoteric technology for rapid transformation.
The images felt immediately familiar. I first came into contact with Tantra through the Hindu stream. Over time, my practice and study migrated to the Tibetan Buddhist Tantra--following the footsteps of the Indian sage, Padmashambhava, and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal from India to Tibet where they introduced Tantra to the native Bon population. The resulting synthesis of the refined Indian tradition with the deep and earthy indigenous shamanic stream is part of what gives Tibetan Tantra its unique signature.
As you may know, the iconography of the Tibetan Tantra is extremely detailed and evocative. Some thangkas (meditational images) include hundreds of figures, symbols, and narrative elements executed with mathematical precision in lush pigments. Thangka painters are highly trained both in the artform and in the philosophy of Buddhism. Monks spend days and weeks constructing elaborate sand mandalas representing the holographic pure land temples and worlds of the Buddhaverse. It is a colorful, explicit, and elaborate tradition.
I adore the Tibetan imagery, but there is something arresting about the straightforward nature of these Indian images. Like Tantra itself, they seem to be simultaneously naked/direct and secretive/aloof--hidden in plain sight: open to those who know; impenetrable to those without the keys or proper initiation. I have been savoring them, experiencing mild epiphanies here and there where a clue to the meaning and power of an image suddenly dawns on me. I feel them calling me in the primary directions of the Tantra:
EVER DEEPER and EVER MORE EXPANSIVE
They are like pills or little portals. They contain worlds. They are inscrutable. I feel them working on me in ways I can't predict. For me, they represent the pinnacle of what abstract art can do: transform the viewer. And while they weren't created as art, per se, but more as tools for spiritual practice, I don't know if there needs to be made a distinction. The best art is alchemical and the best iconographic/symbolic tools for accessing the Divine are artful. Jamme wrote in an invitation to a show of these works in Paris in the 1990s, "The thought has often occurred to me that, perhaps rarely in the universal history of painting, have works at once so mysterious and simple, yet so powerful and pure ever been produced. A bit as if here, man's genius had been able to assemble almost everything in almost nothing.” TO ASSEMBLE ALMOST EVERYTHING IN ALMOST NOTHING. In this time of excess, those words are like a balm to me. Yes, it is possible. We don't need much and we have all we need right now.
Tomorrow we'll talk about a few of these images and meditate on the descending path -- that state of deepening and expanding infinitely. I am no expert on Tantra or these paintings, but I look forward to sharing what knowledge I have and working together towards a beautiful meditative experience.
Please join me at 9am EST on November 30 for an hour.