Feminism Awakens In Himalayan Buddhist Art and Meditation

“In mid-January the British-born Buddhist nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo – the closest thing we have to a Thomas Merton figure today – spoke before a sold-out audience at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Arts in Manhattan. Accompanying her and providing locutory support was the art historian and former Rubin Museum curator, Kathryn Selig Brown. The topic was Jetsunma’s approach to visualization in meditation and the overall place of art in its embodiment and enhancement of dharma.

Perhaps we all should have expected an espousal of feminism to come from Jetsunma. After all, she became a Buddhist nun just when her native England and the West as a whole was undergoing a radical feminization of society. Why shouldn’t feminism now be brought to fruition among Buddhists, who at least in their contemporary incarnations count among the most civilized and proto-democratic peoples the world has known. (Although this wasn’t always the case.) 

Of course, it should be no less remarkable to witness feminism manifest in what may be the world’s only Himalayan Buddhist monastery devoted to visualizing predominantly female deities, yoginis, and bodhisattvadevi, than it is in the art world, where galleries such a Gagosian still are resistant to some of the most significant developments in contemporary art because they are made by women, or because they will earn less. Of course, there is the nature of the entities that Jetsunma commissions for her art that ordinarily belie feminism and activism. Not only are they entirely archaic in origin and originally designed to placate the patriarchal sensibility written into and legislated by Buddhist social structures.

Read the full piece here

The author’s writing style is very dense - not an easy read - but if you’re interested in feminism and Buddhist art, it’s a very in-depth piece.


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Credit: Dipsy迪西.

This is Mahapajapati Gotami, the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt and the first woman to request and receive ordination from the Buddha. It is one detail from the mural, with two other details continued in the two photos immediately below. In those photos we see six of the first Buddhist nuns (bikshunis) who followed Mahapajapati Gotami’s example and here accompany her in making preparations for meditation. It is believed that the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery and Temple founded by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is the first Himalayan Buddhist temple to have installed depictions of these nuns. This rendering, and most of the work in this article, was done by the Tibetan artist-in-exile, Kalsang Damchoe and his assistants and students from the Kalsang Tibetan Traditional Art of Thangka Painting studio.