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16_chos rje de bzhin gshegs paThe Karmapa is a very important Lama/guru of Tibetan Buddhism and acts as the head of the Karma Kagyu (the black hat school), the largest sub-school of Himalayan Buddhism.  According to tradition, the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–1193 AD) was such a gifted and sedulous scholar (and so very, very holy) that he attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga. To his adherents, the Karmapa is seen as a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas (not to me though, I prefer to think of Avalokiteśvara as the luminous Kwan Yin, not as some sad middle-aged Chinese puppet).

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Ahem, anyway, due to religious and political controversy so convoluted and schismatic that it would make an antipope blush, the identity of the 17th (current) Karmapa is disputed.  This matters little to us though, for our purposes today, which, as you maybe guessed from the title, involve the Karmapa’s remarkable headress, the black crown.  As implied by its heavy metal name, the black crown’s roots are said to lie beyond this world. According to folklore, the black crown was woven by the dahinis (sacred female spirits of Vajrayana Buddhism) from their own gorgeous black hair. They gave this gift to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual attainment.  The 5th Karmapa was a tutor to the Yongle Emperor (arguably China’s greatest emperor) and the wily emperor claimed that he could see the immaterial black crown above the Karmapa’s head.  The Yongle Emperor was sad that lesser mortals could not perceive this ineffable headdress and so he had a worldly facsimile made for the Karmapa, not out of the hair of dahinis, but instead from coarser materials such as rubies, gold, and precious stones. That’s it, up there at the top of this paragraph (adorning the head of the 16th Karmapa).

I wish I could show you a better picture of the jeweled hat which the Yongle Emperor commissioned for all Karmapas, past, present, and future (fake and real?), but unfortunately, some of the political strife of Tibet, China, and India is reflected in the provenance of the sacred item.   The 16th Karmapa brought the black crown to a monastery in (Indian) Sikkim during the tumult of the 1960s when China’s relationship with ancient cultural traditions grew rather fraught.  When the 16th Karmapa transcended this mortal world in 1993, the crown went missing. It has not been seen since, but one hopes it might reappear at some point when the true 17th Karmapa is revealed (or when all contenders are gone and we move on to the 18th Karmapa).  Alternately, perhaps a careful inventory of Rumtek monastery will cause it to turn up.

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The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

A Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) which I photographed at the Central Park Zoo

Today we present the lovable red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal which is the only species of the only genus of the family Ailuridae.  Weighing up to 15 pounds red pandas are shaped like cats—indeed their scientific name means “shining cats”—however they are not at all closely related to cats and their nearest cousins are in the superfamily Musteloidea (which includes raccoons, coatis, skunks, as well as mustelids like otters, weasels, and badgers).  These kinship bonds between the red panda and the other Musteloidea are not especially close:  the red panda is a living fossil and taxonomists are still arguing about where to put it.

During the Miocene era (approximately 20 million years ago to 5 million years ago), close relatives of the red panda spread around the temperate forests of earth. Remains of a very similar creature, Pristinailurus bristoli, were found in the magnificent Gray fossil site of Tennessee and fossils of other red panda like creatures have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  However, today the family consists of one last surviving species which is indigenous only to the high temperate forests of the Himalayan. The animal can be found in India (in Sikkim & Assam), Tibet, Bhutan, in the northern tip of Myanmar, and in southwestern China in the high forests of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Unfortunately, throughout its range the red panda is endangered from hunting and habitat loss. They are hunted for their glorious red striped coats and bushy tails which help the creatures survive the cold and blend in with lichen-covered trees (but unfortunately attract our primate eyes).

Red pandas predominantly dine on bamboo, but they are omnivores who also consume small mammals, birds, eggs, blossoms, and berries.  In captivity they have been observed to eat the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of maples, beeches, and especially mulberries (perhaps this is what their extinct relatives in Europe and the New World ate).  They are solitary arboreal animals who carefully guard their forest territories and seek each others’ company only during mating season.

…although apparently they do fine together when they are eating pumpkins carved with their faces….

The red panda was not well known during the twentieth century, but because it flourishes in zoos it is becoming ever more famous among new generations of zoo-goers.  To reiterate, the animal flourishes in zoos even as it vanishes in the wild, so some day the red panda might be like that other magnificent orange Asian mammal, the tiger (which are now far more numerous in captivity than in the wild).  Thanks to their success in wildlife centers, red pandas are growing more popular in the media world: in the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda” an animated red panda was featured as the venerable dojo master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman (who has admitted to knowing very little about the red panda before taking on the role).  Sikkim has adopted the animal as its official state animal and red pandas are also the mascots for the Darjeeling tea festival.  All of this matters in a ever more human-dominated planet where a species’ charisma to people is what is likely to keep it from going extinct.

Concept Drawings of Master Shifu, the Red Panda Sage from “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks Studios

Speaking of charismatic red pandas, the world’s most famous (real) red panda is a male red panda named Babu who lives at Birmingham Nature Centre, in England. In 2005 Babu escaped into the suburban woods and, like Mia the cobra, attained media stardom before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted Brummie of the year (A Brummie apparently being a resident of Birmingham).  I have often watched Red Pandas at the Bronx, Central Park, and Prospect Park Zoos and I am surprised they do not have a similar designation in New York City.  No animal could be more designed to tickle human tastes or appeal more directly to the “cuteness” short circuit of our brain—at least until the red pandas smile and reveal that their jaws are filled with needle sharp teeth.

A Chinese Painting of a Red Panda (I can’t translate the name of the gifted artist) from auction.artxun.com

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