Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iconic Synthesis: Ethics, Sacred Art vs Intellectual Property, and Collective Vision

What does White Mahakala look like?

What does he really look like?

Are the tangkas and statues of White Mahakala similar to snapshots? Or, a product of iconic syntheses, like caricatures? If they are, then who "owns" White Mahakala's image? Who "owns" the collective vision?

Images of White Mahakala are sacred art. They were created, and exist as, supports for practice. For example: the above image was created for a practitioner. It was lost to its mother country (Tibet) through force majeure; or, to put it another way, it was stolen by barbarians.

It is an icon. It was stolen (or, in most cases, destroyed) because a superior force wanted to replace it with their own icons.

Nevertheless, as Tibet did not "own" this image, and the practitioner did not "own" this image, who "owns" this image?

The Cultural Revolution. The Chinese translates as:
"Destroy the Old World, Establish the New World."
Note the Buddhist image under the left sneaker.

If a sacred icon, ripped from its original environment through force of arms, finds its way to the shady underworld of international traffic in stolen antiquities, what are we to make of this? A market exists because wealthy collectors and museums cause it to exist. Now, when the image comes into the hands of a collector, and the collector gives it to a museum, does the museum "own" the image? Does it "own" copies, or reproductions of the image? If so, what "value" has been added, really, other than to create a demand for, and to receive stolen property?

I saw an item on the web recently, demonstrating a technology called Photosynth. I am currently trying to use this to capture all digital images of Guru Rinpoche that I can find, from whatever source, so that I can achieve what might be called "consensus iconography" regarding his dress, and the manner of draping, as we proceed with the process of re-creating the lost Guru Ngadrama statue. The technology is exciting -- open and exciting -- expressing a certain generosity of the human heart, and the human experience. We take collective visual knowledge, and like the man says, use it to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. I really suggest you watch the demo, all the way to the end, to see for yourself what I'm talking about.

However, after I watched, I thought of the miles of images in the hands of museums and universities, jealousy guarded by copyright and legal departments. What a shock it must be to realize that technology is rendering the imprisoned image obsolete. You cannot lock the stable after the horse is gone. Why would you even try?

Nobody owns Buddha, you know? Nobody owns Dharma. Maybe the sangha thinks they own buddha and dharma, but that is the sangha's downfall. I saw a video once where a ridiculous person proclaimed, about Americans, "we own Buddhism now," and I just laughed. Can you possess nirmanakaya? Who is possessing what, and how?

"One who knows mantra should generate no disgust for anything, for Vajrasattva himself exists as whatever form is before one's eye."

She (Laksmimkara) had the right idea. White Mahakala really looks like whatever form is in front of your eye. Even the most artistically horrible cartoon White Mahakala is perfect in every respect. Nowadays, some of the young lamas are fond of drawing distinctions. They say things like, "all tangkas look like cartoons," or, "I hate the way Tibetan art portrays the deities." I think this is supposed to make them seem daring, or contemporary. We are supposed to think they have seen the deities in a way that we have not. We are supposed to go striving and grasping after some idealized picture of the deity

We are all, already continuously seeing all the dancing deities.

Usually, we think of generosity in terms of doing something, taking some action, or "what happens." However, sometimes it is more useful to consider generosity in terms of what we don't do, of what "doesn't happen." If my hand is tightly closed, this involves some effort, but if my hand is open, this involves no effort at all. So, we can say that generosity is not so much what we give away, but what we give up.

If we give up striving after idealized pictures of the deity -- the deity is, after all, aniconic -- that is the greatest generosity I can think of. We stop crowding, you know? We realize that this space we kept crowded has always been available -- is always available -- as our own nature: not fabricated, not indicated, not explained, not cultivated.

The image dissolves and here, where there is no longer any target, no longer any aim, the deity is always present. Blessings are very real.

If you could bring that blessing to others, why wouldn't you?

"Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Tathagata be seen by his physical marks?"

"No, World Honored One, the Tathagata cannot be seen by his physical marks. And why? It is because the physical marks are spoken of by the Tathagata as no physical marks."

The Buddha said to Subhuti, "All with marks is empty and false. If you see all marks as no marks then you see the Tathagata."

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1 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Great, great, great!