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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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Happy Losar!  No—I didn’t hurl a confusing insult at you–today is the Tibetan New Year Festival “Losar.” Although it is putatively a Buddhist version of the Chinese New Year, Losar predated the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and it is on a somewhat different place in the calendar than Chinese New Year. According to scholars, the festival traces its origin back to a late winter/early Spring incense festival of the ancient Bon religion (which has so indelibly colored the Buddhism of Tibet).

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Losar is also known as Shambhala day to adherents of Tibetan practices who believe it should feature mindfulness exercises and meditation (as well as other spiritual rituals and self-care practices).  As with Chinese New Year, there are elemental animals which represent every year: and they are more-or-less the same as in the Chinese calendar, but with a different flavor. For example, instead of calling this year, “the year of the fire rooster.’ Tibetans call it “the Year of the firebird” which is the same…and yet oddly different.

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Losar began on Monday February 27th and ends March 1st, so enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy the year of the Fire rooster/Fire Bird.

The mighty Tibetan mastiff!

The mighty Tibetan mastiff!

High on the Tibetan plateau life is hard. Roving bands of marauders have been lurking in the mountains and skree for millennia. Wolves, snow leopards, eagles, and high-altitude jumping spiders are always leaping out from behind glaciers to gobble up unwary travelers and/or their domestic animals. In this adversarial alpine world of unending peril, the herdsmen, weak-boned monks, and goodhearted family folk have only one consta\

Picture of Cangni--a Tibetan Mastiff (Giuseppe Castiglione, Ching Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Picture of Cangni–a Tibetan Mastiff (Giuseppe Castiglione, Ching Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Tibetan mastiff is a huge furry guard dog noted for great power and constant vigilance (although it is not really a mastiff but a large spitz-type dog that reminded European explorers of mastiffs back home). The dogs weigh between 45–68 kg (100-160 pounds) although “mastiffs” at the upper extremes of these sizes are from Chinese and Western kennels. The historical Tibetan mastiff was somewhat smaller so that its nomadic owners could keep it fed. Unlike many large dogs, Tibetan mastiffs have comparatively lon lives of up to 14 years. The breed is considered a “primitive breed” which means it has fewer genetic differences from wolves then most modern dogs and its ancestors were presumably thus among the first domestic dog breeds (although geneticists dispute when and how the Tibetan mastiff came into being). To survive in the inclement Himalayan weather mastiffs have double coats of coarse weatherproof outer hair which protect down-like inner hair. These magnificent heavy coats come in many colors, including black, black and tan, gold, orange, red, and bluish-gray. Additionally many of the dogs have white markings on their coats.

Tibetan Mastiff with Owner

Tibetan Mastiff with Owner

Tibetan mastiffs are meant to be fearless guardians of flocks, camps, villages, and monasteries. Although they have the size and strength to fight wolves, leopards, and varlets, they mostly just bark, growl, and mark their territory in traditional canine fashion to ward off interlopers. The big furry guards are famous for lazily sleeping all day so that they can be awake and alert at night when danger is on the prowl. The dog came briefly into popularity in England in the early nineteenth century when George IV owned a pair. Today they are back in popularity—but this time in booming China, where they are the status symbol du jour for the nouveau riche. Of course buyers need to be alert in the wild wild east where there are frequently shenanigans afoot. Rich Chinese will pay millions (or tens of millions) of yuan for show quality Tibetan mastiffs. When they get home and wash their new furry friends, the dye in the dog hair washes out to reve3al sub-optimum colors! Even worse, the Tibetan mastiffs are sometimes revealed to have hair extensions so they look more like lions! Oh, the duplicity!

What the...? Are Tibetan mastiffs masters of disguise?

What the…? Are Tibetan mastiffs masters of disguise?

Today features a short but vivid post.  I found the following image of a magnificent Asian crown on the internet but I do not know who crafted it or where it is.  Look at how splendid it is!

Although I don’t know where this crown is from, I do understand what it represents.  This is the crown of Mahākāla, a syncretic deity who is so different throughout Asia, he could almost be different gods.  In India, he is a form of Siva.  In Japan, Mahākāla is an exalted household deity associated with the kitchen and with wealth and luck.  However the most dramatic and fearsome form of Mahākāla is the black multi-armed version which is universally worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism.  The angry Tibetan version of Mahākāla is a dharmapāla–a deity of wrathful justice.  Even though Mahākāla is terrifying, he is still a bodhisattva (like the gentle Kuan Yin) and his righteous anger serves a higher purpose.  His savagery is actually a form of compassion for other enlightened and thinking beings.

 

Mahākāla (Nicholas Roerich)

In his form as a dharmapāla, Mahākāla is depicted with a crown of five skulls to represent the transmutation of the five afflictions into five wisdoms. Each of the five jeweled skulls (thod skam gyi dbu rgyan) symbolizes one of the five Buddhas.  Although Mahākāla somewhat resembles Kali, his mission, form, and purpose are obscure and different in accordance with the various esoteric sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

The Endless Knot

In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism).  Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.

Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal:  essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol.  To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned.  Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings.  In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.

 

Or the permanent nature of a tattoo…

To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved.  It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably.  The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).

My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.

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