Tag Archives: Buddhism

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.

A Tantric Viewpoint: Reconnecting To Our Lover’s Energy In A Disconnected World

A long time ago in a galaxy called the “Buddha-verse”, there existed a world where the Goddess ruled. This was the world of Tantra. The core of these teachings reveal that we are each a microcosm of the universe and everything mirrored in our reality is a macrocosm of what is going on within us. For this reason, tantric’s revere and nurture their emotional, spiritual, and physical bodies. Tantra is the yoga of the heart.

“We are each a microcosm of the universe and everything mirrored in our reality is a macrocosm of what is going on within us.”

From the traditional tantric view, the Goddess (often referred to the Divine Mother) 1, gives reverence to both male and female powers. Tantra affirms that God and Goddess go together, support each other, and should be worshiped together. The couple agrees to individually embody the archetypal energies of a male and female deity.

According to the tantric world view, we are all male/female by nature. In the womb our bodies are androgynous for a certain amount of time until the soul entering the body makes a choice as to which sex would serve it best.

Plato wrote there are three types of souls: Man, Woman, & Androgynies. Man is attracted to man and woman are attracted to women. Androgynies are what we would call heterosexuals in our current times. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad describes androgyne as a male and female heterosexual but other scriptures and icons describe them as one bi-sexual body whose real power lay in their feminine attributes. 2

In Tantra, the cosmic consciousness is feminine and embodies feminine qualities. These include psycho-spiritual receptivity, compassion, and the energy of consciousness.

The masculine force is the manifestation of will, drive, and control. Tantra views the feminine as the embodiment of spiritual wisdom, with the male being the embodiment of physical wisdom.

Female energy holds the power to see through the illusions of the mind. It is the feminine energy that is the Shakti, or power-source. The Shakti is the direct access to the universe for her mate. (In Tantric practice you do not have to be a literal female to become the Shakti. It is understood there can be a female soul found within a male body and that a male soul is sometimes born in a female body).

This view is quite different from the distorted patriarchal Christian or Judaic perspective we live with now. I say distorted because there was a time when all religions honored the Goddess and believed that without Her blessings, they were powerless. In Tantra she was the Shakti, in Sufism she was the Fravashi. In the Middle East, Al Lat, the Goddess of the Moon, became Allah.1

According to The Book of Jasher, a nine foot ancient scroll intentionally left out of the Old Testament, the Jews worshipped the Goddess Asherah long before the had ever heard of Jehovah.3 Jesus called Mary Magdalene, “Apostle to the apostles”, “the Divine Mother that knew all”.4

Internationally acclaimed author and tantric scholar, Miranda Shaw, revealed some astonishing research with reference to the woman behind Shakyamuni Buddha. In her book, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, she states that he received his spiritual enlightenment during tantric sex with his wife in their palace. Only then did he renounce his kingdom and become a homeless wanderer in inspire people to take up the spiritual life.5

“(Buddha) received his spiritual enlightenment during tantric sex with his wife in their palace…only then did he renounce his kingdom…to inspire people to take up the spiritual life”

So when did this schism between the God and the Goddess occur? Apparently not until what the Hindus call the Kali Yuga (the current world age). It was written there would be a time when male energy would fall out of alignment with his female counterpart. Just as we are born of a woman’s body, the Gods and Goddesses confess they were also born of a feminine consciousness. The universe is the embodiment of the feminine principle…just as Mother Earth is. Feminine energy is creative, win-win, caring for future generations (using only the resources needed); that embodies an awareness that humans are not the only species on earth, nor a superior one.

A damaged male energy system is competitive and hoards resources. It is aggressive, entitled, and often demonstrates little empathy. Each of us has both the male and female energies within us. The kind of world we create for ourselves reflects the balance of these divine energies in our daily lives.

Why? Remember that whole microcosm/macrocosm belief system I mentioned above? We are living in two worlds right now. We have one foot in the old male energy systems and one foot in the new feminine energy that has awakened.

The old, male world is dying. It is fighting back like a bully child throwing its weight around. In the US we see it reflected in a government run by a misogynist that is using an office to benefit a gluttony of greed. We see it in the elimation of food for the poor and our old, not caring for the infirm with millions losing health care. We see it the theft of Social Security from the people who paid into it in good faith.

“The old, male world is dying. It is fighting back like a bully child throwing its weight around.”

This dying energy reveals itself in the attempted destruction of our National Parks, The National Endowment for the Arts, and Public Television. We see it in the assault on the EPA that protects our natural resources. Ending Planned Parenthood, an organization that gives affordable healthcare to millions, is not about abortion: it is about disempowering women. This energy endangers our entire planet and all her species, so that 1% of the world can control others. It is a vampiric energy, not a loving one.

Tantra clearly defines and honors the male and female energies. In American society, those roles have become muddled. So what can Tantra teach us about our masculine/feminine roles in today’s world?

The first step would be to honor the God/Goddess in ourselves. See our bodies as a temple for a visiting deity. What must we do to prepare this house for its sacred guest? Holding an image of the sacred within us sets a resonance for our life. Seeing that sacredness in others sets another resonance. When you treat all beings in your life as a visiting holy being, it brings out the very best in them. Treat the partner in your life this way and the results will be astonishing.

Folsom Twins by Uriél Dana
The Folsom Twins, Uriél Dana, 2016, Oil On Canvas

Featured Image – Detail: Bond of Union by M.C. Escher, Dutch 1898–1972. Original lithograph in the National Gallery of Canada


Footnotes

1. Walker, Barbara G. The Secrets of the Tarot, Origins, History, and Symbolism. Harper San Francisco. 1984
2. O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Hindu Myths. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1975
3. From a lecture presented by Sir Laurence Garner, Kt St GM, KCD, author of Bloodline of the Holy Grail, at The Ranch, Yelm, Washington, 30 April 1997
4. Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels, New York:Random House, 1979,p.22
5. Interview with Craig Hamilton, What Is Enlightenment, Issue 13, Spring/Summer 1998


Parts of this article originally appeared in an article entitled:“A Tantrik Occasion” in the Dec. 1999 issue of GC Magazine in Dallas, Texas. ©1999–2017 Uriél Dana

Impotence and Tantra: How An Ancient Practice Can Shed New Light On A Modern Issue

Tantra is an ancient practice of breath and energy work that originated in Hinduism, and later migrated into Buddhism. The tantras are ancient texts that span from the the 5th to the 8th century. Each discourse represents a software for running the human body. Together they offer a kind of “stealth” spiritual technology that can help reconcile our spiritual and sexual natures.

Of the original 64 texts, only six refer to sexual practice. Due to a childhood sleeping disorder, I have been a practitioner of Tibetan Dream Yoga, another of the tantras, since age nine. When people learn I consider myself a devotional Tantric, they often plunge into questions not about dreams or breath work, but about sex.

A twenty eight year old man once confided a very private, yet common, sexual concern. He told me that although he thought about sex a lot, when it actually came to having sex, he no longer felt interested or excited. In the past he had many positive sexual encounters. Although he still continued to be aroused looking at sexy photos and film, he was concerned that he was becoming impotent.

Thinking about sex and looking at pornography are both mental activities. Notice that I said he told me he didn’t “feel” interested, or “feel” excited anymore. This is because his sexuality had moved into his “head”. Sex in Tantra transcends the mind; it is a synergetic act of the body, soul, & spirit. The mind is useful in your choice of potential partners and for preparing for love play (candles, condoms, or comforts), but in actual lovemaking it should be set aside.

Many people approach sex with the same attitude as going to the gym: mental, goal oriented. In tantric lovemaking however, our attitude will be more a kin to meditation and prayer. (Meditation being when we “listen” to God-Goddess, prayer being when we “talk to” God-Goddess). Lets talk about what these two approaches look like in our sexuality.

First of all, the mind holds fear. When we are in our “minds”, we are constantly judging, analyzing, and trying to control an outcome. We are thinking about our performance, or our partner’s performance, what we look like, or comparing our lover or ourselves to other lovers or even fantasy lovers. This means we are living in the past, or living in the future, and we are not being in our “present”. Nothing is less satisfying than being with a lover who does not “show up” energetically.

When we move our sexuality out of the mind it goes directly into the heart. It feels as different as a one-night stand versus being with someone we deeply love. In meditation we pay attention to our breathing. We breathe into total relaxation, we are present. That “presence” becomes our “present” to our lover. We are genuinely connecting with each other energetically; to our divinity.

The problem with approaching sex from the mind is it is also where we create stress and anxiety. Without meditation, these become tension in our bodies. When men experience tension, their blood pressure is affected and the valves that regulate the blood steam of their body’s arteries are also the valves that affect the lingam’s* ability to have an erection. As a rule, stress is the culprit behind impotence as it constricts the blood flow into the lingam.

When we stay in the present while lovemaking, from that place of one-ness with spirit, we are not attached to outcomes or performance. Each moment is sacred, a gift. Time slows down. Shame and guilt fall away as we fall into the divinity of our partner. We see ourselves in them. Touch them as we would want to be touched, kiss them as we would like to be kissed, hold them in the safety and light we feel when we surrender to spirit. It is surprisingly erotic to those who have never tried it.

Even though the most sexually dysfunctional man will have at least five erections during his sleep cycle lasting nearly half an hour, his waking mind, when filled with stress or tension, will create impotence. Meditation relaxes the body and is the secret of sexually empowered tantric men.

For those who may be put off by the idea of meditating, there are many forms that fit different lifestyles. One of its primary benefits is learning how to breathe correctly. Most people do not.

The way we naturally breathe as a baby or when we sleep is to expand our abdominal muscles when we inhale and contract them when we exhale. The air you breath in through your nose should go all the way down to your belly. An ancient proverb states: The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating”.

Controlling your breath will greatly help your heart not work as hard as well as help your immune system. During normal intercourse, the rhythm of breathing with sexual movements is synchronized spontaneously. Reversing or desynchronizing breathing during sex can help control the length and stamina of your experience.

If breathwork still seems a bit of a bother remember it could be worse. An East African Tutsi cure for impotence involves the man sleeping with his Mother.

Study for Prometheus
Study for Prometheus. 18th.century. Jean Grandjean Dutch 1752–1781. Charcoal on paper

*Lingam is the tantric word for Penis.


Featured Image: 18th Century Drawing by Francois Boucher, Ecole Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Art and Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to the West in the 1960’s. It was significant for changing the pattern of keeping mystical knowledge secret.

This New American Dharma (a term coined by Llama Surya Das) began making available any knowledge that would help humanity empower itself spiritually. My own introduction to Buddhism began as a child when a sleeping disorder began a decades old practice of Tibetan Dream Yoga.

The tools of Tibetan Buddhism and The Ageless Wisdom are not new age. I prefer to think of them as “new edge”.

Many of these ideas are the foundations of quantum physics and Vajrayana Buddhism, commonly known as Buddhist Tantra.

One of the most basic yet profound truths of the ageless wisdom is “energy follows thought”. This has been rephrased many ways; thoughts are things, you are what you think about, you create your own reality, etc. Each of us is a vehicle for universal energy. This energy manifests itself as light and is formless. It is our thoughts, beliefs, and intentions that give that energy form.

Buddhism follows a slightly different formula; kindness in thoughts creates energy. If you add a sense of service to something larger than yourself, you’ve added the wings of intention.

As applied to making art, “the energy you hold when you create stays in that thing forever. You can make a beautiful painting but if you were angry when you painted it that is what people will feel when they look at it.”

I apprenticed as a painter for four years with the late Gage Taylor (d.2000) and we collaborated together for nearly two decades. As this kind of synergy is rare among artists, we were invited to travel as guests of the U.S. State Department former Arts America Program. We visited places with an anti-American sentiment and worked with hundreds of artists.

During this time, Gage Taylor and I observed impeccably painted work collect dust on walls, and we observed paintings rendered with unbelievably poor skill sell like crazy.Without fail, when we met the non-selling artists, they were angry at the world and felt the world owed them a living.

When we met a successful artist, we would encounted someone who was joyful, loved what he was doing, loved people, and was filled with gratitude. Each also had a sense of service to something larger than themselves.These two conflicting attitudes were manifestations of each artists power of intention.

“Intention” is what we have when we combine our desire with a sense of purpose, consciously or not, to accomplish a goal.

The more clear our sense of service, the more dynamic our intentions become.

The stronger the light coming through us becomes, the stronger the purpose, and the faster our thoughts manifest themselves.

When the conscious mind has one intention and the subconscious mind has another, we create whichever intention carries the stronger emotional charge.

Collectors can feel the artist’s intention in artwork. To stand in front of a painting in which the artist has mastered the “flow” allows the looker to feel in telepathic communion with that artist. (There is no word for this in English. In Sanskrit, it is known as the “rasa.”)

One of our galleries in Beverly Hills taught us this in what is now a humorous example. In 1987, Gage Taylor and I were enticed to move to Hawaii by what was at the time the largest grossing gallery in the world. Five days after we got there, our gallery was on “60 Minutes” for fraud! This gallery also had a year’s worth of our work that they would not give back.

We tried to keep to our regular painting schedule, stay out of fear, and not think about how living in the islands was like throwing money into a volcano. We always had more than one of our collaborative paintings going at a time and each of us worked on the work regularly.

There was one painting in particular that every time I would work on I would be thinking, “It’s really beautiful here, but can we afford it”?

When Gage was working on that very same painting, (unbeknownst to me), he was also thinking, “it’s beautiful here, but can we afford it”?

When the painting went to the gallery in Beverly Hills, several people who stood in front of that painting said out loud, almost in trance, “It’s very beautiful, but can I afford it?” It became such a mantra for that painting that our gallery called us to see what was going on? (This is where you go into a meditation and edit the script.)

Several months later, Gage and I decided to do a little experiment with the principles of success that we had so often shared with artists. Prior to this time, our collaborations were in Gage’s style and signed with both our full names… names recognized by collectors.

Combining both of our styles,we entered a major national competition in Bellevue, Washington. We signed this painting with the new name TAYLOR-DANA. A new look, a new signature, a new synergy was born. We were accepted.

The entire time the exhibit was up, we kept repeating to ourselves, “We really want this painting to sell in Bellevue, Washington”. Well, it did not sell until a few months after the show.

Only when a couple from Bellevue, Washington came to Hawaii on vacation did the painting sell. Even though they lived a few blocks from the exhibit! They had never seen our painting until they visited our studio months later!


Featured Image: Enlightenment & Purrsuasion, by Uriél Dana & Gage Taylor (died 2000). © 1999-2017 Uriél Dana.