Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Tonsure

Iconographic and psychologic interpretation of some Buddhist events

By Vittorio Roveda @ (Copyright text and pictures) 

Siddhartha's tonsure
After having left his palace, his parents and wife and child, Siddhartha flew in the sky riding his horse Kantaka with his squire Chandaka hanging on the horse’s tail, flying over the lands of the Shakyas and the Mallas. At dawn he landed, dismounted his horse and standing on the ground, dismissed all the gods, nagas, garudas, and kinnari that had accompanied and protected him.
To create a new start to his life, he ordered his squire to take back to his father his princely ornaments including his horse. He then cut his long flowing hair and threw it to the wind. The God of Tavatimsa diligently collected them to celebrate a festivity in their honor (the ceremony of the collected tuft of hairs) and enshrined them in a stupa.
Having decided to become a religious man he wandered to whom his rich dress could be of interest since he did not need it for the forest life. The gods immediately provided by sending down one of their sons in the semblance of a hunter, simply dressed with a reddish cloth. Siddhartha concluded the swap. This gesture was a step in the transformation from layman to monk, marking the transition from profane to sacred.
After the palace women discovered the absence of Siddhartha, a rescue team was sent outwhihc found the hunter wearing Siddhartha’s princely clothes. He was captured and accused until Chandaka returned and told the true story. According to a text (the Mahavastu) Siddhartha had given to his squire a message for his father, his stepmother and the rest of the family “except his wife”, while the Lalitavistara mention Chandaka consoling the heartbroken wife. With this episode ends the cycle of Kapilavastu.

The episode of Siddhartha cutting of the hairs corresponds - in my view – to the mutilation required in all initiation’s ceremonies. I want to propose the following

1) This is a rite of passage from profane to the sacred, with its required initiate mutilation symbolizing death of the old to be reborn into a new world. It was a death to princely, profane life with a rebirth into an isolate, spiritual, sacred life, a true ‘rite of passage’ from one stage in life to another, from youth to adulthood and maturity. In this critical period of Siddhartha’s life, the archetype of initiation was activated to offer something more spiritually satisfying to Siddhartha: He has left the mundane life to enter a life of austerity and renunciation; He will be reborn into a sacred existence, in a world where it is possible to discover the Truth (The Law); He is not a young neophyte, but a man (he was 29) that has known the mysteries of life, who had revelations of metaphysical order. He is a man that has reached spiritual maturity, the awareness that He will reach enlightenment, alone, through a return to the origin with the simplicity of a just born man, simple and new.

2) After the sacrifice (the cutting of the hairs), he enters the forest, a dark place (embryonic stage) inhabited by some mythic figures: the gurus that will become his teachers (Alama and Rudraka). In this forest he will find his shelter (maternal stage).
From the regression to the embryonic state and the transition to the maternal womb, or a return to pre-natal state, Siddhartha regresses in time becoming contemporaneous with time, the time of Creation in the cosmic night, in view of the enlightenment.

3) The third phase of the initiation concerns the symbolism of death.
During his extreme asceticism, Siddhartha renounces eating and drinking to reach the stage closer to death, becoming like a skeleton; he suffers terrible spasms, tortured by the demons of initiation, the sacrifice of extreme fasting.

We have seen the symbolism of death as the requirement for the spiritual re-birth and regeneration. Death means overcoming the profane condition of ‘natural man’, to discover the dimension of the sacred.

The tonsure
Fig.1 – Details of Siddhartha cutting his hair with happy determination. Wat Kesararam (Siem Reap). End 20th century.

Fig. 2 – A comparatively well preserved corner of the old vihara, painted with the complex scene of Chandaka (Janaka) going back to the place with all the gold ornaments and crown of Siddhartha, then the horse Kantaka dying of sadness. Opposite to him, sitting on as rock, Siddhartha is cutting his long hair with his sword held in his left hand. Immediately, the god Indra appears with a vessel to collect the hair that he will put in the Culamani stupa in the Heavens. Then (Right of picture), Siddhartha is walking away dressed as a monk carrying an alms bowl. The red-ochre background is typical of Kampong Tralach Leu, end of 19th century.
Fig. 3- This picture was taken by Giteau in 1960’s before the monastery was demolished (and the painting on wood lost with it?). She published it in 2003. It shows Chandaka, the squire of Siddhartha, crying near the horse Kantaka who is dying of sorrow for the separation from Siddhartha. Painting originally at the monastery of  Pray Veng (Kandhal), Cambodia

Fig. 4 - The Bodhisattva Siddhartha is shown standing in princely dress while cutting his hair with his sword in his right hand. He is watched by Indra appearing in a cloud holding a container in the shape a stupa to collect the hairs. On the ground are the crown and the sward’ quiver that are collected by Chandaka near the horse Kantaka. Wat Bo Langka (Siem Reap) early 20th century.

Fig. 5 - This damaged mural is from the abandoned Vihara of Wat Chedey (South West of Siem Reap). I took the photograph in 2002 and by now I suspect the mural is gone. It shows the scene of the squire Chandaka walking away holding the prince’s crown to bring to the King. Above is painted the same Chandaka crying over the dying horse. The original painting must have been in brilliant colours considering that they were still sharp when I visited the monastery (early 20th century)

Fig.6 - The tonsure at moonlight?  Wat Bo Langka (Siem Reap). Painted around 1970’s, restored in 1990s

Fig.7 - The tonsure in an aristocratic vision and painting. To the left or the viewer is Chandaka crying over the dying horse. At the center is the Buddha cutting his hair sitting on a rock. To the right are the two gods Indra and Brahma; Indra to collect the holy hairs and Brahma offering the golden cloth to Siddhartha. In the river, fish are jumping of joy. Wat Kongkharam, Bangkok.20th century. (This Thai painting is used in comparison to Khmer Painting)
Fig.8 – The tonsure near the river Anoma. To the right of Siddhartha the two gods Indra and Brahma have arrived with offerings. Chandaka is on the other shore with the dying horse. 
 Wat Sisovat Ratanaram (south of Phnom Penh). The mural was slightly restored in the 1990s as can be seen on this detail.

Fig.9 – The tonsure is shown on two registers slightly shifted aside. Buddha is shown sitting with crossed legs over lotus flowers, glanced by Brahma and Indra making offerings. Mural painting in the cave of  Powin Taung, Myanmar, 17th century

No comments:

Post a Comment