In Phra Mae Thorani (- pronounced ‘Pra May Tarani’) I’ve found the ideal subject matter for my next painting!
Here, featured in a highly symbolic and very popular traditional Lao story, we have the Earth Goddess herself, called up by the Buddha and appearing as a beautiful young woman, Phra Mae Thorani, who squeezes the cool waters of detachment from her hair and causes a flood that sweeps away an army of advancing demons and temptations... including three beautiful young women!... who were intending to disturb the Buddha in his meditation.
As a powerful metaphor, this Mekong-based story of Thorani is a wonderful and picturesque account of my own experiences as a meditating person. It describes, in wonderful symbolic images, the essence of the challenge that you face - whoever you might be; man or woman - whenever you take on a meditation or ‘mindfulness’ practice.
As a long time meditator myself, I can certainly relate to the daily threat of these armies of personal demons ….and I recognise those three beautiful young women! I’m sure it was them who kept knocking on my door - for many years - just when I was getting down to a bit of meditation! Ha ha! And the cool waters of detachment were exactly what was called for at the time.
So Thorani is the ideal subject for me and, having found my subject, I’ve been doing some visual research to see how she is traditionally pictured. I learnt some time ago, from tough personal experience that, in the same way that we ‘know’ what Jesus or Father Christmas looks like(!), Buddhist or Hindu deities all have recognisable faces and it is possible to get them ‘wrong’.
I once painted a picture of the 3 headed Hindu deity, Dattatreya, and gave it as a gift to the Hindu baba, Santosh, who I was living with on the banks of the Ganges, many years ago. And I was pleased with it until he let me know, rather dismissively, that it was OK but, ‘It doesn’t look like Dattatreya!’
So, this time, I’ve been looking through 100s of different images of Thorani and saving them in Pinterest, ready to choose what she’s going to look like in my drawings.
(*Check out my latest research explorations on https://www.pinterest.co.uk/trevannfanthorpe/)
When I first googled ‘Phra Mae Thorani’ I was a little shocked at what I found, because I expected her to look like one of the traditional, usually crudely rendered statues of a modestly dressed young woman with long hair that stand in the grounds of every single temple in Luang Prabang and every other part of Laos.
On Google it turned out that I was faced with 100s and 100s of photos of decidedly curvaceous and often blatantly naked or at least semi-naked versions of very ‘hot’ Thoranis - all drawn, painted or modelled in 2 or 3D by many different artists, probably including quite a few monks in Thailand and Laos, over a period of decades if not hundreds of years!
I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were all just sexy images made by men who couldn’t help but ‘see’ their ideal woman or even a female Buddhist deity such as Thorani as a sexual object? …..Are all those voluptuous sculptures and drawings and paintings of Thorani on the internet and out there in the real world really just more examples of the everyday sexualisation of female bodies that we are familiar with through our global media and in our modern world?….
Or do they actually reflect a depth of meditative clarity, of enlightened vision and of detached contemplation on the essential nature of that unfathomable ‘Earth Goddess’ that Thorani is? In other words, are they actually caringly made, contemplative images, unspoiled by our modern worldly and manly ways of looking at the world of beauty in female form? ie was it just me who was taken aback by all the unexpected array of big boobs on display in those Googled photos? Ha ha!
After all, if we think of the ‘Earth Goddess’ as being the same archetypal character in mythology as what we in the West sometimes call ‘Mother Earth’, then her association with fecundity, fertility and that aspect of Mother Earth that is forever giving birth to new life is laid bare - and the significance of her full, curvaceous and supremely feminine body is very clear, wonderful and uncomplicated by male psychology.
So, in getting down to drawing Phra Mae Thorani, I am posing myself some very interesting and important questions, including, ‘How do I give her a beautiful young woman’s body without sexualising her?’ and, ‘Can an Earth Goddess be both curvaceous and sexy and embody that quality of purity and detachment that makes her a wonderful, idealised and inspiring role model for my and for your mindfulness practice?’
I love engaging with this sort of deep contemplation on the essential message that is inevitably written into a drawing! And as an old geezer with a hot-blooded and hetrosexual past and with me being a meditator, and therefore someone who is working on reframing (but not avoiding) all of life’s experiences, I also find these ultimately unanswerable questions - if they are held within a deeply considered ongoing personal enquiry - fascinating as a focus for contemplation. The way I see it is, if we carry that sort of ongoing ‘enquiry’ with us into our everyday experiences it is a powerful potential catalyst for our personal and social transformation. As in…. ‘We are not fixed beings with fixed views! We’re changing all the time and we are all capable of letting go of our old, tired ways of looking at the world!’
So while I’m drawing Phra Mae Thorani I will be asking myself, ‘What would Thorani, the Earth Goddess called up by the Buddha, who appeared as a beautiful young woman and defeated an army of demons and temptations by washing them away with the powerful waters of detachment that she squeezed from her hair….what would she look like?’ And can I capture something of her essence in a painting?
Inevitably, that challenge will be a big part of the creative process. Luckily, by way of serendipitous encouragement, I recently came across a quote from the Dalai Lama, where he apparently said, ‘One of the quickest ways to become a Buddha is to imagine yourself as one’
So, there you go then!….. Now, how do I imagine myself as Phra Mae Thorani today?