With A Little Help From My Friends
So I'm calling in a couple of my good Buddhist friends--the ones that help to straighten out real problems--to see if we can't tidy up Straight Shot, and maybe the news as well.
Pictured above we have the Glorious Goddess, Palden Lhamo, in a fine treatment in the "black outline" style of Tibetan thankas. These are often employed for the depiction of the very wrathful Protectors Of The Dharma, particularly the ones that are actually the direct manifestation of the Mind of Enlightenment, as contrasted to the "worldly" protectors who may or may not have "insight", the preliminary achievement on the Bodhisattva Path, but who all fall short of the complete perfection of Enlightenment.
Black Outline thankas are some of the most spectacular ones to encounter in person, particularly when they are fresh and new. The Palden Lhamo above gives a relatively good sense of their personal presence, with the lines, done in gold, in all their crisp, glowing beauty. This is unusual, for, with any age on them at all, Black Outline thankas photograph rather poorly.
Palden Lhamo has many names and many forms--generically she is Shri Devi, which is the Sanskrit form of "glorious goddess" and Palden Lhamo is the Tibetan equivalent, but she can be known as Mahakali, the black lady of Time, or Magzor Gyalmo, the Queen Who Turns Back Armies, or by other titles. There are different packages of attributes--a diamond headed mace instead of a great sword, a lasso made from a living snake instead of a poll with a banner, a melong, or ritual mirror instead of an enemy skull, and so forth. She also appears in both two-armed and four-armed forms as she rides sidesaddle on an enraged and crazy mule.
These differences can be bewildering if you cling to the notion that the Glorious Goddess is something ultimately real, just as our world is a source of total confusion when we cling to it as ultimately real. The point of her many and varying attributes is that the Enlightened State of Mind has no real limits, it can manifest in any form decorated with any package of details, depending upon need. "Wrathful" forms such as Palden Lhamo are ways to disperse difficulties and hindrances, sometimes generically personified as "maras" or demons. The forms of Shri Devi are no more real than any phenomenon in our world, but I sincerely advise you, should you happen to run into one of them, to treat them like you would an 18 wheeler, running ten miles an hour over legal on your local expressway. Pedestrians are prohibited up there for good reasons.
Next is Red Sengdongma, the Lion Faced Dakini. Dakini literally means, "sky traveling woman", and, once again, what is being talked about in the form of "dakinis" is a direct and naked experience of the world, beyond the filter of our chronic mental concepts--the world beyond here, there, up, down, past, future, self, and other. Without those concepts to manage it, our world is an outrageous experience of complete exuberance that is totally terrifying because there is no longer any reference point to determine where, who, and what we really are. Not only are all such concepts not truly real, determining anything with them is simply beside the point. When two mirrors reflect into each other what can be made of such total openness? It can only be indirectly portrayed as the "dance of the dakinis".
For it is beyond name, form, perception, and comprehension, a view of things that is completely radical and incredible.
This is the opposite face to the image of a seated Buddha in calm contemplation, completely free of all stain, all suffering, all hindrances. It is a view from the vantage point of the Enlightened Mind itself rather than a view of the Enlightened Mind from the vantage point of our confusion.
The thanka itself is splendid--rich and vivid in color, sinuously elegant in line, and boiling with the excitement of dozens of dancing dakinis surrounding the awe inspiring central figure. It is an incredible view of the Enlightened Mind as a continuous and everlasting Party Goin' On.
The invitation to the Party is always open, but the utter reckless nakedness, the stripping away of all guarantees of safety, security, and selfhood that is the price of admission is a sheer, searing terror. It is only when you are absolutely convinced that there is no other choice but to strip that naked that you can actually find the courage to join that dance. The best description I know of the route to finding that courage is the biography of one of the major figures in the history of my particular lineage: The Life And Teaching of Naropa, translated by Herbert Guenther.
Go read it. This is not something in the idle imagination. It is horribly and intoxicatingly real. And a glimpse of what it really means can stampede you over a cliff. Merely to know that it is always there, closer to you, in fact, than the breath flowing through your own nostrils, is a wake-up call to shake you out of any complacent doldrums, manic or depressed, into which you may have fallen.