How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Feet are not the only inappropriate places to tattoo a respected religious symbol such as the maṇi mantra. The maṇi is about compassion, not sex (despite what you may have heard about the meaning of ’jewel in the lotus').

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.

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Fish Liberation

Fig 1: Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö blesses the fish prior to release.

Over the past several months, a group of Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö’s chinese disciples have been releasing fish into a lake just south of Chengdu. And not just a few fish either. Each day for one hundred days, they released something on the order of half a million small fish. That’s a lot of fish that will no longer become part of someone’s dinner. In line with traditional Tibetan tsetar practices, prior to releasing them, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and his disciples offered extensive prayers for the fish’s present and future well-being (see fig 1). They were then loaded on a boat and transported out into the lake and released (slowly, so as not to harm them in the process. see fig 2). Two points are also worth noting at the outset: first, I was assured that the fish were of a species native to the region, and second, each day they were released into a different part of the lake, so as to minimize the impact on specific areas. Still, releasing half a million fish a day into a lake, even a large one like this, is bound to have an impact on the local ecosystem.

Fig 2: A basket of fish ready for release.

And therein lies one of the more interesting things this practice reveals: a difference between Tibetan and Western attitudes towards the natural environment and the animals living in it. When I discuss these fish liberation episodes with Tibetans, they are overwhelmingly pleased with the number of fish being rescued. My foreign friends, on the other hand, tend to be horrified at the presumed damage being done to the lake’s ecosystem. Admittedly, these have not been formal, statistically rigorous surveys, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to charges of simplification, essentializing Tibetan culture, and other grave academic faults. But I do think I’ve spoken with enough people to observe a basic pattern: Tibetans are primarily concerned with the individual animals while foreigners are more concerned with the well being of the ecosystem. It could be suggested that this difference is due to scientific ignorance on the part of the Tibetans, who might be unaware of the impact of releasing fish, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think this is the case. Several of the Tibetans I’ve spoken to (including Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö) have understood that releasing fish into the lake impacts the lake overall, but have argued that the benefit to the fish being released outweighs this concern. So I think I’ll stick with my guns and my oversimplified, stereotyped distinction.

Fig 3: Slowly pouring fish into the lake.

What makes this even more interesting, to me at least, is that it largely (if imperfectly) mirrors a debate in western environmental ethics. Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that it is an animal’s ability to suffer (or experience happiness) that gives it moral value, and that justifies it’s protection.[1] Thus, an ecosystem (lacking an ability to suffer in its own right) is not inherently valuable in itself, but only in it’s ability to impact the lives of the animals that live in it. We save ecosystems for the sake of the animals, not vice versa. Deep Ecologists (and others), on the other hand, see primary moral value lying in the healthy functioning of an ecosystem as a whole.[2]Individual animals are only a part of that system, and their individual suffering is secondary to the health of the ecosystem. Often, these two approaches line up well. After all, usually what is good for the ecosystem is also what’s good for the animals concerned. But every now and then conflict arises. A classic example is the culling of overpopulated animal populations, where a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a few individual animals so that the ecosystem as a whole can prosper. I might suggest that the release of fifty million fish into a lake is another example. You have a very significant reduction in suffering for fifty million individual animals (they don’t get cooked), but also the risk of destabilizing an entire lake’s ecosystem. Given that the overwhelming majority of my western friends expressed more concern about the ecosystem than the fish, I think I am safe in suggesting that something akin to the Deep Ecology perspective (if not necessarily as radical as a true Deep Ecology position) has become fairly standard among educated westerners.

So what is the point of this long ramble? Not much really. Merely to observe an interesting similarity between what I have been hearing from Tibetans and Singer’s perspectives on animals. Obviously, these are just observations, so I don’t want this to be construed as a definitive statement of ‘Tibetan thought’. I do, however, want to suggest that there might be an interesting kinship between at least some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards animals and Singer’s approach. The Deep Ecologists have long invoked Buddhist notions of dependent origination (give skt / Tibetan) to support their theoris of a deeply interdependent biosphere, and to underscore the importance of using ecosystem health as the baline for making environmental decisions. Perhaps Singer and his followers could also look to Buddhist thought in support of their theories.

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[1]This comes out in Singer’s most famous work, 1975’s Animal Liberation, but is more explicit in his 1979 book Practical Ethics.

[2]This idea has its roots in Aldo Leopold‘s thought, but is now widely represented by many different strands of environmental ethics. It is perhaps the Deep Ecologists who take this idea to its extreme, arguing not only that a functioning ecosystem is the baseline unit of moral value, but that the nature of that functioning is beyond the range of scientific thought.

Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu

Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.

Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years.[1] The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.

UPDATE:

ick
For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.

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[1]A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.

Herding Yaks off Cliffs

Herding Yaks in Khumbu

The story goes something like this: killing is bad, and no one wants the karma of intentionally killing an animal. But you gotta eat, and that means meat. So what’s a poor Tibetan herder to do? It’s simple, really. You take your yaks out to graze, and lead them close to some high cliffs. If all goes well, one of them will lose its footing and fall. You get the meat, and since the yak died ‘accidentally’ you gets a clean conscience to boot. I’ve heard this story on a couple of occasions, and have always wondered if it is true, or if it might fall into that amorphous category we call urban (rural?) legend.[1]

Recently I came across a reference that would seem to provide an answer: urban legend it is. Mari Albert Johan van Menen (1877-1943) was a Dutch Theosophist, avid reader of Tibetan texts, longtime resident of Darjeeling, and eventually General Secretary of the famed Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the nineteen twenties he convinced three of his Tibetan friends and research partners to write autobiographies. Thanks to the efforts of Peter Richards, translations were finally published in 1998, in Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies.[2] There is a wealth of interesting material in these texts, but for now I’m interested in a quote on page 100. There, Karma Sudhön Paul recalls that:

A European once told me he had read that Tibetans never killed animals. He added that, if any meat was needed, they would drive one or two yaks up a mountainside, shout at them from behind. Because this frightened the animals they fell, meeting their death in an abyss. The yaks could now be eaten – no sin was committed because they had killed themselves. However, I never came across this practice and never met a Tibetan who had.

So there we have it, a well-travelled Tibetan, writing in the mid nineteen twenties, who claims that this story is bunk. Not quite enough to completely dismiss such stories, but better than anything else I’ve got. Fortunately, Karma Sudhön Paul gives us a clue about where this story might have come from. The unnamed European said he had read about this. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tibet was largely inaccessible and, to European eyes, shrouded in mystery. Needless to say, may of the books about Tibet that were circulating at the time had only a tenuous connection to reality. So perhaps it was one of these authors, trying to reconcile Tibetans’ love of meat with a nineteenth century view of Buddhism as fundamentally pacifistic and docile, who came up with this story, which has since be retold often enough to pass into the realm of urban legend? Or perhaps not, but stranger things have happened.

Do you know which book this story might have come from? Or do you have any evidence that this might be a real practice after all? Let me know in the comments section below.

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[1]For more information (and graphic photos) about actual Tibetan slaughtering practices, see: Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Cynthia M. Beall. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), especially pages 96-99. Somewhat incredibly, the whole book appears to be available from google books.

For a recent appeal by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö, one of the foremost lamas in Kham today, to make those practices more humane, see: tshul khrims blo ’gros. “dus su bab pa’i gtam lugs gnyis gsal ba’i me long [Timely Advice: the Mirror Illuminating the Two Systems].” In dpal bla rung gi mkhan po tshul khrims blo ’gros kyi gsung ’bum bzhugs so. Vol. 2. (ya chen o rgyan bsam gtan gling, [2004]). This latter text might be hard to find, but should be available through Inter-Library Loan.

[2]Richardus, Peter, ed. Tibetan lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies. Richmond: Curzon, 1998. Preview available on Google Books.

Trash Collection at Yachen Gar

Fig. 1: Trash Truck at Yachen Gar, June 2010
I have recently moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my wife Eliza has started at job teaching at Wofford College. One of the remarkable things about my new town is the trash collection: everyone uses the same trash can, and then a truck with a robotic arm comes by, picks up the can, and dumps the contents into the truck. No trash collectors involved, other than the person driving the truck.

Fig. 2: Houses at Yachen Gar
Other people may be more familiar with this type of trash collection, but I have only seen it in one other place: the late Khenpo A-khyuk‘s encampment at Yachen Gar, in remote Kham (see fig. 1). As those who have been to Tibet recently can attest, trash is a major issue. When Eliza and I visited Dzogchen Monastery in 2007, trash cans were overflowing, the hillsides were covered with refuse, and there was a huge pile of assorted garbage just outside the town. I get the impression that Tibetan culture simply has not yet figured out how to deal with all of the potato chip wrappers, beer bottles and cheap clothes that have accompanied it’s rapid introduction to modernity over the last few decades.

Fig. 3: Getting the Can on the Truck
Yachen Gar is a new religious center, about six hours away from Kardzé on in one direction and Pelyül in the other.[1] It has grown rapidly since its founding in 1980, and when I visited in June of 2010 there were several thousand residents. Each of these monks and nuns are responsible for their own housing and food, and the facility is composed almost entirely of homemade shacks (see fig. 2). Not the kind of place you would expect to find cutting edge trash collection. And yet there was this blue and white truck, making it’s way down the major streets, with two women putting the matching blue trash cans in position, and the truck doing the rest. Truly remarkable. This is not to say that the trash situation at Yachen Gar has been taken care of entirely (I watched one nun throw an old plastic washbasin in the river), but these trucks were a remarkable sight, and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

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Pitching in to build a colossal Mani Wall. Every one of those stones is inscribed, and the whole collection could easily cover a football field to a depth of several meters.
[1]Yachen Gar is one of the most remarkable religious institutions in Tibet today. Like Khenpo Jikmé Püntsok‘s more famous institute at Serta, it was founded by a charismatic tertön in the period just after Deng Xiaoping allowed religious practice. Since then it has grown to be one of the most active and vital teaching centers in the Tibetan world–both inside the PRC and among the exile communities. Sadly, the founder, Khenpo A-khyuk, passed away in July. This is a huge loss, not just for Yachen Gar, but for Tibetan Buddhism and the Nyingma tradition throughout Kham. It remains to be seen how this will affect Yachen Gar on a daily basis. I will be traveling through the region in the coming year, and will post whatever thoughts come to mind, though I will leave a thorough analysis of the coming transition to others. For more info on Khenpo A-khyuk and Yachen Gar, please read Antonio Terrone’s excellent article, “Householders and Monks: A Study of Treasure Revealers and their Role in Religious Revival in Contemporary Eastern Tibet.”, found in Buddhism Beyond the Monastery: Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas, published in 2009 by Brill. You may have to use inter-library loan to get this, as Brill has priced it at a whopping $136.

Samuel Turner, the Daeb Raja and Tibetan Vegetarianism

When foreign observers comment on the Tibetan diet, they usually remark on the large quantities of meat being consumed. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to come across the following passage in the ‘Tibet’ volume of Frederick Schoberl’s 1824 encyclopedia, The World in Miniature: “Hence we may infer that all sorts of animal food are forbidden to the religious, who abstain also from every kind of strong liquors.” In 1824, at least one English encyclopedist believed that all Tibetan monks were vegetarians. Schoberl himself had never been to Tibet (or most of the other places he wrote about), but, remarkably for this time period, he cites his sources.

An Engraving from the 1800 edition of Turner's Embassy to the Court of The Teshoo Lama

In this case, Schoberl is drawing from Samuel Turner’s epic Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama (available free on Google Books). Turner was the second British diplomat to visit Tibet, making a trip to visit the Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo in 1783 (‘Teshoo Lama’ = ‘Lama from Tashilhunpo’ = ‘Panchen Lama’). The first British diplomat, the celebrated George Bogle, died before he could publish an account of his trip, making Turner’s work, published in 1800 and reprinted in 1806, the most significant work on Tibet available to Schoberl.

On the way to Tibet, Turner stopped over in Bhutan, where he hung out with a lama-official he calls the Daeb Raja. Turner’s ‘Daeb Raja’ is, presumably, the Deb Raja, also known as the Druk Desi (འབྲུག་སྡེ་སྲིད།), the secular half of the Bhutan’s ruling partnership. A quick look at Wikipedia lets us know that the Druk Desi at the time of Turner’s visit was Jikmé Senggé (འཇིགས་མེད་སེང་གེ།), who ruled from 1776 to 1788. It is from Turner’s account of his meeting with this individual that Schoberl gets his ideas about Tibetan Buddhist vegetarianism. Turner quotes the Daeb Raja as follows:

“My food consists of the very simplest articles, grain, roots of the earth, and fruits. I never eat of any thing that has had breath, for then I should be the indirect cause of putting an end to the existence of animal life, which, by our religion, is forbidden.”

Jikmé Senggé’s refusal to eat meat on religious grounds is a pretty remarkable thing. While vegetarians were by no means unknown to Tibetan Buddhists of this time, they were few and far between. Which leads to the obvious question: was Jikmé Senggé alone in his vegetarianism, or was there a broader movement afoot in Bhutan at this time? Alas, I have no answer. I’ve looked through the usual compliment of online biographies, bibliographies and finding aids, but have come up empty. In fact, I write this post with the hope that someone reading it will know more about Bhutanese history than I do, and might be able to point me towards some other sources for Jikmé Singyé or other Bhutanese vegetarians of this time.

Until further information emerges, I will simply leave the reader to reflect on the remarkable coincidences that allowed a seemingly chance encounter between Turner and this vegetarian monk-official to cause a British encyclopedist (and who knows how many others of his generation) to believe that all Tibetan monks were vegetarian.

The Comics Connection III: The Green Lama (and I don’t mean Milarepa)

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A while back I wrote a couple of posts about how Batman and Dr Strange both received their training among the magical monks of Tibet. Once they each returned stateside, however, their Tibet connections become a footnote; a quaint piece of backstory, but not much more. Not so for The Green Lama, who not only studied in Tibet, but who wraps his whole identity around the place. When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into a unstoppable crime-fighting force (image 1). Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (click here for some previous posts featuring authentic uses of the maṇi). On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945 (see the center panel in image 1). Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.

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Ok, so he’s wrapped himself in all this Tibetan imagery. But what about all the violence? When he first returns to the US after ten years in Tibet, The Green Lama wants to teach Americans to meditate. He is barely off the ship, however, before he witnesses a murder and becomes convinced that Americans are not ready to meditate. So instead he becomes a superhero, punching out bad guys’ lights left and right. this may not accord with our notions of peaceful Buddhists, but I can’t help feel it resonates with some of the ideas surrounding Tibetan protector deities, or the legends about figures such as Gesar. So maybe we’re not so far off here…. I have no idea what kind of research The Green Lama’s writers did, but it would be really neat to know if these resonances were intentional, or purely coincidence.

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Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, The Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, The Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-semite. To be fair, the writers of this comic clearly supported the war effort, and their characterization of German and, particularly, Japanese soldiers is anything but sympathetic. Still, arguing against racism so strongly seems pretty remarkable for this time. If anyone reading this has studied pop culture of this period, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments box below. I’d be really curious to know how common this was.

So there you have it: the most Tibet-centric comic superhero of all time. As always, we can see the same old stereotypes of Tibet as a land of mysterious enchantments and power, and, as always, the hero is a caucasian male and actual Tibetans are relegated to minor roles. Still, the fact that a comic like this could appear in the forties, and assume that young readers would already be familiar with terms like ‘lama’ and ‘tulku’ speaks to a pretty remarkable level of knowledge and interest in Tibet at the time.

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If you want to read more about The Green Lama, the entire run is contained in the following two books:

  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 1. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.