Reinventing the Wheel: Riffing off of Walter Benjamin in Ladakh

A meditation, in the heart of Ladakh, India, on the nature of art and culture undisturbed from its original dwelling place:

The white of the stupas above Keylong, a Himalayan village located on the banks of the Bhaga river, 13, 871 feet above sea level, reflect the rays of the sun in the early morning light. Intent on visiting the medieval monasteries, or gompas, as they are called in Tibetan, perched high above them on the mountainous slope, we set our course by the stupa’s bone bleached whiteness. Just a few minute’s hike above the dust-choked highway and its endless parade of military transports and garishly decorated tanker trucks, we entered not only a different landscape, but a different ecology of mind.

Rising on a flight of steps, we entered a colonnade of overarching trees lined by walls of meticulously placed stones. Along the path, dried dung cakes impressed with hand prints sat in little piles, and bright orange apricots dried in the sun. Gardens lay before whitewashed houses with brilliantly-colored prayer wheels. Crooked, home-fashioned ladders leaned against haystacks. Higher up, the silvery-bell sound of children’s voices testing out the word “hello” reached us. The handful of workers harvesting one of the terraced fields looked up and greeted us with namaste – “I bow to the divine in you.”

At the foot of the trail to the gompa, we found a sun-dappled bed of stones, some smooth from the river, others flat slabs chipped out of the mountain, upon which hands wintering over in the valley had carved the Tibetan characters for Om Mani Padme Hum – “praise to the jewel in the heart of the lotus,” as it is often translated.

The prayer stones of the chorten had accumulated over the years like leaves beneath a tree in autumn. There was no deliberate art practiced there, only the jostling flow of accident and intention, seasoned by natural processes over time. The hands that had laid the stones had been empty – as if their activity were indistinguishable from that of the mountain.

Above, the gompa sat at a similar confluence of elements, its main gate opening into space. Upon its front step, we sat in contemplation of the truth of Buddhism: all things are essentially empty — not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain, endlessly chanted by the snow-capped peaks and the sunshine slashing through the thin air as the tattered prayer flags fluttered on the wind.

Within, a hallway lined with prayer wheels led to a small courtyard. There the heart of the monastery lay: a 16th century shrine built by an emissary of Nawang Namgyal, the Tibetan lama turned warrior-king who unified the kingdom of Bhutan and begun introducing Tantric Buddhism to the outlying regions.

The shrine was secured with a padlock. The gonyer, or key keeper, appeared on the second-floor landing and tossed down the key to us. I held up my camera to him and pointed at it, raising my eyebrows in query. He smiled, lifting his hand in a gesture of welcome.

Entering, the dark, smooth floorboards creaked beneath our bare feet. As our eyes adjusted to the medieval ambience, we saw walls populated with thangka paintings of wrathful and peaceful deities. Oil lamps flickering on the altar illuminated meticulously carved and painted pillars and beams, along with figures of Buddhist saints draped with white scarves. Making my bows, I felt the release of the accumulated tensions of our journey through India. Here one could truly breathe.

I would be happy to leave my skull here as a doorstop, I thought as I knocked my head against the floor.

Casting my gaze about the room, it occurred to me that here, as below at the chorten, was that fusion of the elements of the religious art with the Himalayan valley in which it was born. It was as if an organic, common root drove both the sap through the leafy vein and the paint through the artist’s brush, both sharing a single creative matrix.

We had already seen much Buddhist art in Nepal, both in recently constructed monasteries and in the numerous shops lining the roads of Kathmandu, but that art felt manufactured in comparison to the thangka paintings on the walls of Shashur gompa.

Although less sophisticated in their execution, the wild figures of the paintings, sporting flaming halos, wearing necklaces of skulls or crowns of wish-fulfilling gems, wielding swords or vajras, seemed to leap off the walls, as if edging out of representation into the embodiment of living forces.

How is it I can see the snow cap and granite, dung and flower petal in the whorl of this art? I wondered. What did that artist mix into his pigment?

Then my mind began to riff off the work of the Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin wrote of the “aura” of a work of art, which he called, “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” This uniqueness, according to Benjamin, “is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind.”

What I was seeing in Shashur was unmanufactured art, ritual objects that had yet to be torn from the fabric of tradition – crafted by hand to contain exactly the forces they were shaped to represent. It brought to mind another ritual object that I had encountered early in my Buddhist practice, one whose “aura” had been powerful enough to embed me in its time and space.

Well into a meditation retreat in the wilderness of Death Valley in California, I had sat in a circle as a primitive stone tool found on the desert floor made its round from hand to hand. As I held it, feeling how it nestled in my palm, the hand that had once carefully fashioned it upon the shore of a lake vanished long ago in geological time reached over the centuries to touch me. With a sudden vertigo, I saw the constellations in the sky of my mind wheeling backward, beyond 1492 into the time depths of this continent. Free of the European time-line, I finally set foot in the New World.*

Our experience at Shashur gompa seemed natural at the time, but we were soon to learn, as we continued our journey on into Ladakh Valley, how compromised such unfeigned openness and generosity have become beneath the contagion of consumerism that is spreading through the landscape, town by town, family by family.

Built upon high mounts, a typical gompa of the North Indian Himalaya rises from the ash grey, desiccated landscape like something geological itself, a medieval fortress in white, the teeth of the mountains arrayed against deep blue, cloud-streaked skies. The monasteries are still filled with wine-red robed figures, from old lamas scarred with the persecutions of China to novices playing with cell phones, but a steady stream of tourists in recent years have been triggering some disquieting changes to these traditional sites.

The hands of the monk you now see emerging out of the cool interior of a shrine, once your eyes have readjusted from the bright sun, are not holding a mala nor are they pressed together in the traditional salutation of the Himalayas. They hold a ticket book instead.

Whereas as recently as a couple decades ago it was only the hardy traveller who penetrated into these mountain fastnesses to encounter the gompas’ unique existence, now the pilgrim arriving at once inaccessible monasteries such as Hemis is greeted by the sight of a parking lot filled with white vans and lounging drivers from Leh. Upon ascending to the main gate, he finds himself being shunted by the ticket attendant into the courtyard, where surveying the grounds he sees the various temples of the complex, some with piles of tennis shoes at their entryway, others roped-off and under restoration. At Hemis there is also a unique structure, unseen in all of Ladakh: a museum! Yes, the monastery has decided that its ancient culture is already a relic of the past and the tourist is invited to pay an additional fee to view these rare objects of Buddhist worship.

Within the temples, tourists wander about chattering and taking photos. Sometimes a guide explains the meaning of the thangka paintings or the figures on the altars. A single monk sits in the pews keeping an eye out for illicit use of flash photography.

Few indeed are the visitors who make bows at the threshold or offerings at the altar. Without the knowledge of the most basic of Buddhist traditions tourists behave like the cattle of Indian streets, whose dumb intrusions into the middle of traffic are a feature of daily life. A typical sight is a pair of tourists talking loudly together in a shrine, competing with the lama seated beside them chanting an ancient text. Or consider this scene we witnessed from the midst of a tightly packed crowd of Ladakhis in a temple compound, most of whom wore homespun dresses and robes and spun prayer wheels in their hands. A blond girl, wearing tight leotards over her Barbie-doll figure, stood on top of the temple stairs, straining to photograph a ritual to Green Tara conducted within by a venerated Rinpoche, while her boyfriend continually slapped her buttocks in mischievous excitement.

Even the monks themselves appear to be displaying this curious detachment from their given culture. Walking past a shrine containing a three-story tall statue of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-come, I see a monk on tip-toes trying to capture a close-up of its golden face with his cell phone camera.

Benjamin claimed the subtle desecration that comes with “prying an object from its shell” of culture is a consequence of a peculiar feature of modern consciousness:

It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.

The trend could easily be summed up in a single word: commodification. The disease process by which a person, thing or culture is degraded into a commodity for sale, which traditional cultures such as Ladakh haven’t built up the immunity to resist.

This can be material. As Norberg-Hodge reports, when she first went to Ladakh, the people could not conceive of exchanging their hand-crafted heirlooms for money. “People would not sell their old wooden butter jars no matter what was offered by their few visitors; today, only too eager to sell, they store their butter in tin cans.”

It can also be psychological. Under the influence of the flood of Western tourists, many religious appear to be re-envisioning their livelihood. Often, upon informing a monk asking for money that I was a Buddhist and had actually come to worship at their temple, I would get a perplexed look. Or like at Hemis, a wave of dismissal.

Alchi, described as the “crowning glory of Indo-Tibetan art in Ladakh” by our guidebook, may also now represent the culmination of the transformation of sites of religious practice into tourist playgrounds.
Pressed by time, we had hitchhiked in through the bone-dry terrain surrounding the Karakoram highway. Walking into the narrowing valley where the monastery is situated, we noted the proliferation of trendy restaurants, guest-houses and little shops selling religious paraphernalia. The tourists in expensive new adventure outfits from North Face were also there. Before arriving at the temple complex, we passed the arched gateway to the Alchi monastery family campground.

We arrived just in time to watch a surly monk step out of the heavy wooden doors of the compound and lock them. He began washing his feet from a water pitcher he carried in his hands. My watch read 12 noon.

Approaching him, I bowed and asked if we could be allowed to briefly view the temple, saying we had just walked in from the highway and had to return quickly. He shook his head, saying a single word, “Lunch!” I tried again. “Buddhist,” I said, pointing at myself. “Walk in from highway!”

“Lunch!” he repeated like a postal employee, and turned away. Our opportunity to worship at the shrine and view the 11th century wall paintings had just bit the dust.

Hiking back out of the valley, Susana told me she would do the talking with the drivers. “You look like a Taliban come to blow up the last remaining Kashmiri Buddhist art,” she teased me.

Not only can the aura of a work of art be destroyed by prying it out of its ritual function, but the arrival of the mass, statistical mind of tourism can be equally destructive. By universalizing the Himalayan culture that gave birth to both the ritual and art, most obviously through the reproducing camera, and levelling it through a perception that seeks only the pleasure of getting a hold of something at close range, tourism subtly transforms the sites themselves into living museums.

The irony is under these conditions, who could tell the difference between the original monastery and its hypothetical reproduction anyways? Now that the ticket vendors are in place and the gates to the halls containing the gigantic statues of Maitreya Buddha flung open, how would anyone know if the Walt Disney Company hadn’t gotten there first and substituted a reproduction for the original? How would anyone know that the smiling lama isn’t an actor, just like the guy wearing the Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland?

They don’t. Nor do most care. They are there to reproduce the monastery themselves, after all. As Benjamin so prophetically wrote in 1936,

The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

* As the poet Gary Snyder described this embedding, “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.” (42).