All posts by Uriél Danā

The Other America: Cultural Literacy & Tolerance

In a pre pandemic world I once walked into a Chase bank preparing for a trip to New Zealand. The Lake Merritt area of Oakland is six miles from San Francisco in a highly educated, successful area. I walked up to the teller with my account information and asked for the exchange rate for New Zealand dollars. The teller said sure, and then asked me if I could I tell him what kind of money I wanted? I said “New Zealand dollars”. He said yes, I understand, but then continued to speak to me very slowly, “What kind of money did I want to purchase”? I said, “dollars, New Zealand dollars”.

It felt like I was in a secret comedy skit. The teller said, “Let me get my manager.” The bank manager came back and said she understood I wanted to buy New Zealand dollars. At last I could breathe. She looked me straight in the eye and asked me, “Can you tell me what kind of money they use in New Zealand”?  I looked at her and said, “New Zealand Dollars”.

It was mind boggling for me. How could the manager of one of the largest international banks in a major metropolitan city not know the currencies of other countries? How could a bank not know other places in the world use dollars (Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar not to be confused with the New Zealand dollar, Singapore dollar, Bahamian Dollar, Cayman Dollar, Cook Islands Dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Liberian dollar, Jamaican dollar) in addition to the US dollar?

EXPOSURE TO OTHER CULTURES AND RACISM

The average American has only traveled to 3 countries and two of those often include Canada and Mexico. More shocking, a third of Americans have not only never left the country, they’ve never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born. What, I wonder, is the correlation between the latter and the political right wing stance, fear of the other?  I then have to ask, what is the correlation between the forgotten states, those that visitors rarely enter: Missouri, Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and the prevalent racism towards anyone not like them?

A GOLDFISH BOWL IS NOT THE WORLD                        

Many Americans do not realize they have lived their life in a Goldfish bowl. Europeans living in countries in close proximity to one another realize they are in an aquarium. It is common for other countries to speak more than one language. To hear a Trump supporter yell to someone speaking Spanish “Speak American here” is an example of how isolation feeds fear. Clearly oblivious that Spanish is the language of Central America, South America, and nearly half of North America and is spoken by nearly 500 million people in the world. (Only 360 million people speak English as their first language). Spanish evolved out of the Iberian Peninsula in Southwestern Europe and spread through colonization into the the America’s when the Spanish Empire was one of the largest in history. When you travel you live in the Ocean.

WHEN YOU TRAVEL YOU LIVE IN AN OCEAN

As a disclaimer, I am not rich, but adventurous. That trait has goaded me to visit 44 countries and live on three continents. Beginning with a tour of duty in Europe that allowed for travel, I learned many ways to travel on the cheap. The more I traveled, the more I saw how we are all more alike than different. It is an attitude of “us and them” that keeps us in continuous fear and war.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE OCEAN HAS BEEN REDUCED TO A SCREENSAVER?

So what happens in a pandemic when we are all forced to live in a bubble and the Ocean has been reduced to a screensaver? How can we avoid emotional contraction when we are showered with propaganda and disinformation by those intent on destroying us through derision?  By adding a few creative challenges to their curriculums, teachers can change America in one generation. I am not a teacher but a traveler, but I will share what I’ve taken away from experience and from my own amazing teachers.

YOU CAN NOT UNDERSTAND A PEOPLE IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THEIR CULTURE

When I was living in Germany, France was just a few hours drive away and I visited often. I did not speak French. I loved everything and everyone French, but they were very closed to me. I learnt that the French do not believe you can understand them unless you understand their culture. They are their culture. I learned from this and have taken it to every country I have visited.

Who are their best selling authors? Who are their most famous films or film directors? Who are their famous composers, musicians, poets, and artists? (Not just the dead ones, but those living right now). What is the culture famous for (and not just in the tourist areas)? How many languages do they speak in their country?

Teachers or homeschoolers can do this with one country a week. We must make people of different nationalities more than a place on a map. After the culture of a place has been explored, watching travel videos, watching a movie made in that country and reading a book by one of its famous authors can be included. It does not have to be boring. I was reading Jules Verne in first grade and had no idea he was French.

“MANNERS WILL TAKE YOU FURTHER IN LIFE THAN A MASTERS DEGREE”

Another thing I learnt from the French that needs to be relearned in the US, are the importance of manners. Americans used to say the French are rude. They aren’t. Actually, Americans are. You do not treat anyone like a servant in France. You must always be respectful. You must always say Good Morning, Good Afternoon, or Good Evening to anyone you do business with. This is always followed by, “how are you today”. If you do not follow the basic rules of etiquette Hell will freeze over before anyone will serve you.  It gave me one of my famous mantras, “manners will take you further in life than a Masters Degree”.

CREATE A FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

My fourth grade geography teacher made the class read JRR Tolkien’s, The Hobbit one semester. It was fun and a bit challenging. Afterwards, we were divided in groups and each group had to create its own fictional universe. We had to understand its climate, economics, spiritual-belief system, what language they spoke, what they ate, how they raised and educated its children, their political system, every aspect of our own society. We had to make maps of our world and provide drawings or examples of everything down to what they wore and how it was made and of what material. Presentations were made and each universe was incredibly different from one another because each of us brought our own life experiences to the project. When we were done, the next semester was spent understanding the different continents of the world. The experience inventing our own universe allowed us to take in cultures in this way. That teacher had expanded our worlds in a way that made someone else’s just as interesting.

In college I was required to take three credits in cultural studies and was surprised that the course included movies based on historical events in many native languages. Each film informed us as to how those events influenced the political and cultural direction a country embodied.  Again, culture informs.

HOW DIFFERENT WOULD OUR SOCIETY BE IF BLACK HISTORY MONTH WASN’T TAUGHT ONLY ONE MONTH OUT OF THE YEAR?

How different would our society be if Black History Month was not taught one month a year but included in American history? Why should the inventor of closed-circuit television security, the IBM Computer and Pacemaker, gas mask, sanitary napkin, caller ID, touch tone phones, fiber optic cable and peanut butter be relegated to one month when every day of our lives is gifted by a black inventor?

CULTURAL LITERACY DOES NOT MAKE US LOSE OURSELVES; IT SHOWS US THE KIND OF PEOPLE WE WANT TO BE.

People who fear anyone who is different in belief or custom is still living in a goldfish bowl. America to other nations is known for inventing BBQ, jazz, movies, and Silicon Valley, that’s it. We are seen as being fat, uneducated, and war mongering. We are currently viewed as a nation of bullies that does not care for its children, elders, or its sick.  Cultural literacy does not make us lose ourselves, it shows us the kind of people we want to be.

Copyright free image courtesy of Pixabay and Msporch


Uriél Danā on Film ShootUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contributing Editor on the arts and other subjects for two online arts magazines.

She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems will be featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA.

 

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.

Muted Warnings and An Invisible Killer: Why Are Scientists & Doctors Being Ignored About 5G?

The Roman Empire slowly committed suicide by lead poisoning. They added it to their food as a sweetener, cooked in lead pots, added it to their make-up, and piped in via their water through contaminated pipes.

Mount Vesuvius engulfed the city of Pompeii in A.D. 79 before the residents could act. In the end it saved them from the slow death by the chemical element antimony, a brittle silvery white metalloid mixed in pewter, lead, and other metals. Antimony came from a naturally occurring black sulfide and was also in the black kohl used in cosmetics.

In both of these examples the ruling government chose commerce over health, ignoring their scientists and the symptoms laid before them.

This is not a cautionary parallel with the current Covid 19 pandemic; it’s a red flag for the endless push towards 5G by telecommunication networks.

Alan Watts once wrote that the rhythm of life is the “on/off of the universe and extends from the pulse of a star to the beating of a humming-birds heart”. If he was correct, then 5G is interfering with natures heartbeat.

Using frequencies 1,000 times faster than 4G, the latest generation will move our mobile devices effectively from horse and cart to a modern sports car. Before 5G was proposed, however, over 3000 physicians and scientists called for a halt to the expansion of wireless technology in the Freiburger Appeal.

The harmful effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF’s) are already proven. Scientists from 41 countries have contacted the World Health Organization with studies that show this damage.

Over 10,000 doctors and scientists have peer-reviewed scientific studies that show us EMF’s can alter heart rhythm, genes, metabolism, and stem cell development. Their studies show a direct connection between RF radiation from 30 kHz-300 GHz to cancers, cardiovascular disease, DNA damage, cognitive impairment including learning and memory deficits as well as autism in children, ADHD and asthma. It also increased free radicals, caused miscarriage, impaired sperm function, neurological damage, obesity and diabetes, as well as oxidative stress.

The damage done effects birds, insects, mammals, honey bees, as well as trees and forests.

Despite urgent requests to halt 5G by the United Nations, World Health Organization, the EU, the Council of Europe and governments of all nations, telecommunications networks continue to pursue profits under the guise of advancement.

In 2019, 240 scientists who had studied the health effects of EMF’s, called for stronger exposure limits than those adopted by the FCC in the late 1990’s.

Signing what has become known as The International EMF Scientist Appeal, the paper states the following:

“Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well beyond most international and national guidelines. Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life.”

All life is connected in ways we may not see. The Earth is not here for the profit of a few corporations. I’ve noted that as we get closer to telecom companies launching 5G globally, there has been a gluttony of articles praising it arrival. Scientific and medical warnings are being forced out of site with articles ridiculing those concerns. The science is put into the same basket of people once afraid of telephones or electric lights.

German music journalist and author of over 20 books, Joachim Ernst Berendt (d.2000) once shared a story about biologist Lyall Watson. Watson wondered at a drum that was beaten exactly every two minutes and thirty five seconds for a full day by native drummers to ensure crop fertility. Only years later did scientists discover that the cadence of their beat exactly matched the resonant frequency of the earth. Native peoples call this, “the heartbeat of Mother Earth”. 

Header Image: Copyright free Image by Ria Sopala from Pixabay


Uriél Danā at the Getty MuseumUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contemporary Figurative Art Curator.
She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems were  featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA. To see more artwork and read more of her articles, please visit https://www.urieldana.com.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.

Insulated Societies And Fear: Awakening Cultural Intelligence Through The Arts

The Covid-19 quarantine has catapulted humanity into a new phase of global awareness through internet-based interaction. Professional and community based online communication has become a literal life stream.

Sadly, prior to the pandemic, we had already started to see a push towards cultural isolationism as a knee jerk rejection of globalism by the fearful.

Insular societies are often formed by living in an isolated location or in a group of people that resist exposure to new ideas. It can be a side effect of poverty with restricted travel or movement. Fear will often derail travel or reflect a lack of interest to exposure to other nationalities, languages or cultures.

Excluding the East and West coasts of the United States, 60% of Americans do not have a passport. Since the early part of the 20th century Americans have rarely traveled beyond 50 miles from where they were born! Our only exposure to other cultures can be limited to television, movies or social media, none of which reflect reality.

Unfortunately this can create a fear of new experiences, fear of travel, or worse, gross stereotypes of people. A perfect example is how Muslims are portrayed as terrorists or as dangerous individuals. Imagine if the entire world thought all Americans were Jehovah Witnesses?

Geographical size can also be a major contributor to an insular culture. California is the size of 5–7 European countries and is actually smaller than Texas or Alaska. Americans with only two weeks vacation a year barely have enough time to explore their own state, much less travel to another country.

In comparison, while living in Germany, I could drive to Holland or Belgium in 5 hours, Austria in 7 hours, France in 10, and Italy in 13. In those few hours I was exposed to multiple cultures, languages, food, and people. In Switzerland I was astounded to hear preschoolers speaking multiple languages from their exposure to people from other countries.

Now imagine each US state as a different country. It’s easy if you try and imagine someone from Boston talking to someone from Alabama, Texas or California. It would sound like we were all from different planets. There is a reason for that too.

As a melting pot of people who immigrated here from around the world, we came here despite the First Nations and Mexican Nation people that already were established here culturally and physically. Isolationists choose to forget that we are a country of immigrants. Their racism and xenophobia are a response to not being able to recognize the original cultural heritage in another person. This is what we now identify as “cultural intelligence”.

Professor David Livermore is an expert in cultural behavior. He is a world-renowned writer and lecturer on Cultural Intelligence. He helps train police departments to determine whether someone from a different cultural background is exhibiting behavior that is a threat or a culturally derived emotional response to a crisis.

To understand someone’s character or behavior, it helps to understand if they are from an Affective or Neutral Cultural background. Affective cultures are highly expressive in their communications and feelings. They talk loudly when excited, are very animated, enthusiastic, spontaneous. They are also more emotional and use their intuition in their decision making process and will often exaggerate to make a point.

Affective cultures include African American, Italian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and the Spanish. In Affective cultures, interruptions are okay but it is silence that is considered awkward.

Neutral cultures emphasize controlling their emotions or a non-emotional response to situations. They are more likely to disguise what they are thinking or feeling which can lead to unexpected outbursts. They can speak in a monotone, show little emotions, and expect others to stick to the point on specific, predetermined topics. To interrupt someone is taboo and punishment often includes being given “the silent treatment”.

Neutral cultures include Chinese, Ethiopian, German, Japanese, and Native American.

Culture is not only about national culture. There are also industry cultures and corporate cultures.

In his Teaching Company course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Where ever You Are, Professor Livermore analyzes cultures beyond Affective and Neutral behaviors.

Cultures (based on academic research across 60 countries) are also identified by;

  • Individualist versus Collectivist attitudes
  • Low versus High Power Distance
  • Cooperative versus Competitive
  • How they view time (Punctuality versus Relationships)
  • Direct versus Indirect Communication
  • Being versus Doing
  • Particularist versus Universalist
  • Tight versus Loose

Livermore also identifies 10 global clusters of large cultural groupings which share core patterns of thinking and behaving.

The arts can be one of the least fearful ways to open ourselves up to other cultures. If travel and finances are restricting our global curiosity about other cultures, we can learn much by watching videos or travel blogs on YouTube from expatriates who live in those places.

Begin with one or two countries. Perhaps the countries your family originated from or a country you have always wanted to visit. If you really want to stretch your personal boundaries, do this with a culture you have no interest in.

Research your country of interest’s most famous painters, singers, play-writes, and film directors. Who were their bestselling authors? Find out and then read English versions of those books. Who are their famous chefs and what foods do they eat and why? What is your chosen country most famous for? What were their gifts to the world? 

Exposure to other cultures has benefited humanity much more than isolation. It may not be immediately obvious but history has provided many examples of this.

Prior to the Renaissance, only priests and monks could read. Much of Europe lived in filth and isolation until the Christian Crusades. History shows us these solders were not Christians at all, but paid mercenaries to go into Spain and kill off the Moors who had settled there by the Christian church.

When the soldiers arrived in Cordoba they found a place like no other. The Moors had plumbing, in-house baths, and communal fountains. They cultivated fruit trees and had more libraries than in all of France combined!

“Their society had become too sophisticated to be fanatical. Christians and Moslems, with Jews as their intermediaries and interpreters, lived side by side and fought, not each other, but other mixed communities.” (Cleugh, 1953, p.71).

While the rest of Europe lived in fear and superstition, Arabs had traveled the globe and brought books and knowledge from every location.

Thanks to the Moors, we were gifted with our knowledge of medicine, botany, geometry, astronomy, mathematics (including the concept of zero), eye -glasses, and the use of brass type for printing, just to name a few.

The Moors also gave us the concept of dressing for the seasons, using glass and silverware to eat, and eating meals in more than one course.

These were the gifts of Arab Muslims to the West. Their culture was so far ahead of the rest of the world that Christian and Jewish scholars had to come from all around Europe to translate their books. It took them 300 years! This is what came to be known as the Renaissance or “great rebirth”.

When we travel we learn more about ourselves than the world. To get past fear and isolationism, we must focus on what makes us the same rather than what is different. We all want a safe place to live, enough food to eat, and for our families to be safe. We all laugh and we all cry.

We all love. When we hear or read any disparaging statement against another culture it is important to ask ourselves two questions. What is it they fear and Who will benefit from creating an Us versus Them situation?


Uriél Danā at the Getty MuseumUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contemporary Figurative Art Curator.
She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems were  featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA. To see more artwork and read more of her articles, please visit https://www.urieldana.com.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.

Poetry Online: Featured on KPFA Radio for National Poetry Month

On Saturday, May 2, I was honored to be invited to read two of my poems for National Poetry Month 2020, on  KPFA radio’s B.A.J.A.B.A. on JaZzLine (Bay Area Jazz and Blues Artists).  The poems read (in order) are Spirit Chaser (Guide for the Departing) and The In-Between.  Destiny Muhammad provides the amazing background music for the poetry.

The poets sharing their work in the complete broadcast included: Iris de Anda, Briana Munoz, Devorah major, John Curl, Jose Hector Cadena, Kim McMillon, Uriel Dana, Karla Brundage, Sam Louie, Tureeda Mikell, Paul Corman Roberts, Judy Juanita, Al Young (read by his son, Michael Young) and Lucinda Clark. All poetry can be heard online in the KPFA (Berkeley, CA) archives.

Why Are Some Paintings Under Glass? Glazed and Confused?

Many museum visitors are aware that a single drop of moisture can destroy a drawing, watercolor, gouache, or tempera but rarely consider how vulnerable they are to UV damage. Varnished oil paintings do not need this protection and therefore making it perplexing when we see one under glass in a frame.

As a trained curator, when I see a covered painting I see it as a major clue the work has either traveled between many museums or been loaned by one. 

Glazing is the term used by museums to indicate a painting is protected by glass or Plexiglas. Museums often ask for work that is going to travel a great distance without crating to be glazed. Crating is extremely expensive and can run into the thousands per painting.

Museum glass is not the same glass you buy at your local hardware store, but a special conservation glass that offers increased UV protection (99%) and reduces reflections. Glazing does not sit directly on top of an oil painting but sits over a mat or mount in front of the painting.  

In addition to providing impact protection, environmental extremes and physical damage, glazing also protects the painting from microbiological hazards, pollution, touching, and dust and dirt. 

According to The Tate Museum in London, “glazing is seen by most conservators and curators as a necessary evil and any advantages must be offset against well known disadvantages such as reduced visibility (including reduced light transmission, reflections, colour casts, distortions); potential breakage and damage to the artwork; additional weight, cost and labour involved; possible structural or aesthetic unsuitability of the frame; and other issues such as static, condensation and thermal instability.”

Occasionally, what we are seeing over a painting is not museum glass but museum grade acrylic. Often called by the brands most in demand, “Optium” or “True Vue” they are virtually scratch proof and nearly unbreakable, but much more expensive.

It’s rare to see a modern or contemporary painting glazed because so many have floating edges (called a gallery wrap) or are unframed completely. Paintings pre 19th century were not considered finished without their frame and never would have been displayed as such. It is much more common to see work from the 1800’s or earlier glazed.

Paintings under Glass - Uriél Danā at the Getty Museum
Photo of Uriél Danā by the fountain at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

Thank you for reading this article.

For more articles on what galleries look for in an artist and other art eccentricities, please click through the links below.


Cover image: Painting by Mitch Griffith, Detail of “​ Man In The Frame”​

 

Écorché: The Art and Science of Seeing Through Others

Écorché is a word coined by the École Des Beaux Arts to describe a figure that is drawn, painted, or sculpted without skin to reveal the muscles and bones below. It literally translates to “flayed or skinned”.

Écorché Woman
Écorché Woman

In Western Europe this teaching practice went back to the Italian Renaissance. Long associated with masters such as Leonardo da VinciAndreas Vesalius & Honore Fragonard, it is used today as a form of study for the human form at many top art schools including the New York Academy of Art, the Art Students League of New York and the Florence Academy of Art in Italy.

Without mastery of the human figure, its skeleton and muscle masses, figures in art look rubbery or the portrait equivalent of the clay humanoid animation Mr. Gumby.

Écorché, Antonio Durelli 1837 red chalk and pencil
Écorché, Antonio Durelli 1837 red chalk and pencil

Occidental anatomy is the structural foundation for realism in drawing, painting, or sculpture, but also for medical treatment and forensic facial reconstruction.

Christians believed the body and the soul were connected and forbade doctors from viewing (much less dissecting) the human body.

Écorché - Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

It was not until the election of Pope Boniface VIII (d.1303) was the practice allowed. Even so, it was not until a century later during the early Renaissance for these studies to be embraced. Leonardo da Vinci (b.1452-d.1519) emerged as a major contributor and became known as the artist-anatomist to the new science of “anatomy”. He was the first to draw a fetus in utero but unfortunately got many of the female reproductive organs incorrect. (Female corpses were difficult to come by).

Finding cadavers to develop this practice is as interesting as the drawings themselves.

A sketch by Michelangelo di Buonarroti
A sketch by Michelangelo di Buonarroti

When Michelangelo was seventeen he stayed at the convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Paris after the death of Lorenzo de’Medici. Its hospital regularly practiced dissection on its bodies. Michelangelo traded his sculpting abilities to make a crucifix for their Basilica in exchange for access to their corpses.

Many cadavers up to 200 years ago have been hanging victims.

Jiwoong Cheh, Sculptor
Jiwoong Cheh, Sculptor

Medical schools advanced quickly when painters and sculptors began working with doctors. By the 17th and 18th century, dissections became a standard practice in medical schools. A few doctors were also artists.

Doctor Paul Richer (1849-1933) sculpted the Living Ecorché to stress the significance between the interior and exterior forms of the body.

In the East, écorché is known as Jing-Shui and it was mastered 1500 years before the West. During the Chinese Han Dynasty (16 C.E.), Emperor Wang Mang ordered the body of a criminal to be slowly deconstructed from skin to bone. Everything was recorded and drawn systematically. Bamboo rods were inserted into blood vessels to discover where they began and where they ended. It was the foundation of what we now know as acupuncture.

Repin State Academic Institute "Anatomical & Figure Drawing"
Repin State Academic Institute “Anatomical & Figure Drawing”

Today artists and healers use écorché models made from plaster, wax, wood, wax, resin, bronze, ivory, and even apps on their phone.

Medical schools still dissect bodies for their training. Bodies donated to science are given to nonprofits such as The Anatomical Gift Associationwho embalm and transfer them to institutions. (Only bodies with all their organs are accepted).

As of 2018, member medical schools pay about $1300 per corpse, non-members $2300.

Thank you for reading this article. For more articles on what galleries look for in an artist and other art eccentricities, please click through to the articles below.


Cover image:  Scott Eaton Anatomy Course

The Eighty-Four Mahasiddhas: Understanding Buddhist Imagery

The Eighty-Four Mahasiddhas are historical figures that lived between the eighth and twelfth centuries that achieved great accomplishments. A more western definition is that a “siddha” is someone with magical powers and “maha” means above all others. How they achieved these abilities came to be known as the Buddhist Tantras.

Commonly known as “siddhis”, these psychic and spiritual abilities have often been dubbed “supernatural”. They are developed through an oral tradition of teaching in addition to an extended meditation practice.

In the early Nyingma tradition (one of the four Tibetan Buddhist Practices), the “Highest Yoga Tantras” or anuttarra, carry a sword in their right hand that could grant the eight great powers or psychic attainment. These include psychic sight or clairvoyance, invisibility, transmutation of matter, translocation and multiple manifestation, the sword of discriminating awareness, the ability to traverse all realms of existence, ability to fly through the sky, levitation, and immortality.

Supernatural abilities are not what made the eighty-four mahasiddhas special however. Using the teachings of the Buddha, these individuals gained enlightenment during their lifetime. They offered a path for others to follow so they too could achieve success in their Vajrayana practice. (Vajrayana is a path that uses ordinary experiences into an opportunity for awakening spiritually).

Let me reframe this concept in a modern context: In 1995 I flat-lined during a surgical procedure. I found myself in 16th century Bengal India, dying from a fall down a flight of stairs. The details of that out of body journey were life altering for me. I began dreaming in Sanskrit and Chinese; could understand the lyrics of any language in song; could suddenly play a tamboura; chant in mantra; and I could smell when people were about to die. I also started painting miniatures, Left-handed. (I am right handed).

In the Vajrayana tradition I would probably be renamed Udana (which is how I sign my paintings), a combination of my first initial and last name that takes on a third, synergistic meaning. The Udana in tantric practice is the ascending energy current. It means, “to awaken”. If I were to write a self help book of those experiences or teach privately in workshops they would be known as “the Udana Tantras”.

16 Monks (Arhats), Miniature painting, Oil on Board, 1996, by Uriél Danā
Miniature painting, 16 Monks (Arhats), Oil on Board, 1996, by Uriél Danā

The eighty-four mahasiddhas helped bring about the growth and success of the Tantric tradition, particularly during the Pala dynasty. The supernatural stories of the mahasiddha helped establish many Buddhist lineages and traditions. For example, there is a strong connection between the Mahasiddha “Telopa” in the Kagyu sect of Buddhism and “Virupa” in the Sakya sect. Telopa is known as “the great renunciate” because he gave up the fortune he made as an oil merchant for spiritual liberation.

Made up of eighty men and four women, there is always a pattern to their stories. Their mahasiddha name is rarely the one they were born with. They are always identified by caste, which can be either low or high. A life crisis occurs through deep discontent or an inability to see their way out of a problem.  They meet a guru or teacher, usually in a place where they are confronting their fears, which more often than not is a cemetery.

(Cemeteries are traditionally the symbol of  “samsara” or those caught in the cycle of suffering) in both Buddhism and Hinduism. After years of following strict practices given by their guru, enlightenment follows and the mahasiddha inspires many people on their own path of enlightenment.

Although there is a pattern to the stories, that’s where the similarities end. The translation of their names alone shows the sheer variety of characters. There is Jayanda; the Crow Master, Lilapa; the Royal Hedonist, & Nirgunapa; The Enlightened Moron. There are two headless sisters (Kanakhala and McKhala), a gambler (Tantepa), and a compulsive liar (Thaganapa). There are kings (Campaka, Kankana), a prince (Nalinapa), and a mad princess (Laksminkara). Let’s not forget the pastry chef (Picari or Pacaripa), a glutton (Sarvabhaksa), a fearless thief (Khadgapa), and a lovelorn widower (Kankaripa). There is Godhuripa, the bird catcher, and Udhilipa, the flying birdman.  There is also a mahasiddha named Darika who was a bit of a slave to prostitutes that learned to fly on his own accord.

Dharma Publishing has published a book on the lives of the mahasiddhas by Abhayadatta. Translated into English by James B. Robinson, Buddha’s Lions; The Lives of The Eighty-Four Siddhas offers insight into the Vajrayana.  Robinson tells of when Buddhism passed into Tibet it was vital that those who shared their lineage embody the teachings of that lineage. In this way each became a Buddha himself and the doctrine became a living lineage.

Robinson goes on to tell us how the Buddha taught that wisdom comes from both knowledge and practice. ‘It is not enough to receive the oral tradition or to just memorize the data. One must sit and absorb it. The knowledge produced in meditation then becomes the culminating achievement affecting the transformation that leads to liberation.’

One example is Laksminkara, a.k.a. “the mad princess”. Her brother was a king that ruled over a quarter of a million cities in Uddiyana. Laksminkara was enormously wealthy and extremely educated. She had studied the tantras and been taught by the great siddha Kanibala himself.  Her brother arranges a marriage for her to the future King of Lanka and off she is shipped.  It wasn’t looking too good for her when she arrived; most of the people were not Buddhists. Laksminkara wasn’t even allowed to enter the king’s palace because the stars were unfavorable.

While waiting in town the prince’s entourage arrived from a hunt carrying a huge amount of meat. When she found out the prince was responsible for the death of all of these animals she was repulsed. She knew she could not marry such a man. She gave away all the wealth and jewelry she had brought as her dowry to the people, and gave instruction not to be disturbed for ten days. She cut off her hair, stripped naked and rubbed ash all over her body. The king tried to get her help and medicines for her to come to her senses but Laksminkara would not have it. Eventually she escaped and went to live in a graveyard for 7 years until she attained siddhi.

A sweeper of the king made reverence to her and she became his teacher. Once, when the king had lost his way he saw magic lights and dakinis dancing in the cave where Laksminkara slept. At first he thought she was crazy. He returned to the palace but felt so much light and faith, he was compelled to return. Honoring her with the reverence she deserved, he asked for her to be his teacher. She told the King his sweeper was her student and he must honor the sweeper as his teacher as he would become an auspicious friend.  The challenge would be for the King to find “the right sweeper” as there were so many. Laksminkara told him to look for the sweeper giving food to the people at night.

In the end, the King found the right sweeper. The king put him on a throne and asked for instructions. He received spiritual transmission from him, and the sweeper and the princess manifested many miracles for the people of Lanka.

Parts of this article were originally from a piece I wrote in 2009 for the Dharma Publishing website, a division of the Nyingma Institute Buddhist Center in Berkeley, CA. They offer courses on many aspects of Buddhism and I was lucky enough to enroll in one of its Art in Tibetan Thangka classes. It is a rare and comprehensive course on the subject.


Uriél Danā has been a Professional Artist, Curator & Arts Writer since 1983 in addition to being an invitational Arts Ambassador for the US State Department. She became a Master of Tibetan Dream Yoga from age 9 to overcome a sleeping disorder under the training of a Mongolian monk on the North side of Chicago. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.