Tibetan Buddhism gets a feminist reboot at IDEA Space 

Twisting tradition

When you step into Colorado College's IDEA Space during its 2014 summer exhibition Mandala of Enlightenment: The Dhyani Buddhas and Tara: Goddess of Liberation, you might think you're simply surrounded by a couple dozen pieces of traditional Tibetan Buddhist art.

It'll take some work on your part — reading the wall texts, in particular — to understand what's happening in Joan Bredin-Price's paintings around you.

"I love that as a total outsider, who knows nothing, you would not see this as radical art," says curator Jessica Hunter-Larsen. "You would look at this and say, 'This is beautiful. Traditional. This looks like a Tibetan monk might have painted it.' ... But just unlocking one little piece of information reveals this whole dimension of ... illumination. There's more. And we want to pull the 'more' to the surface."

Which, when speaking with friends of the Massachusetts artist, who died of cancer last July at age 70, seems to be exactly what she was going for. That takes into account both her re-integration of the female in her Dhyani Buddhas, and her exploration into the many forms of the savior goddess of Tibet, Tara.

David Gardiner, associate professor of religion at CC and one of the aforementioned friends, describes Bredin-Price's work as putting a modern feminist, and American, spin on the traditional. She was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, but also "a bit of a wiccan and new age this-and-that" who ran up against the natural chauvinistic tendencies in the various forms of Buddhism.

"Buddhist males dominate," he explains, "and dominate not only in the institutions, but in the artistic renderings."

Bredin-Price had read a lot of ancient texts, he adds, and found that even though they write of both the male and female aspects of being, the masculine entities were emphasized as traditions evolved; the female presence often disappeared altogether. Her Dhyani Buddhas series takes the five male Buddhas of one particular wisdom mandala and places them side-by-side with their five female consorts.

Longtime friend Nancy Braxton, who has been working on this exhibit with Gardiner and Hunter-Larsen, explains that Bredin-Price focused on "showing them in identical posture and the same scale."

Says Gardiner: "I know highly traditional and highly respected Tibetan lamas who have seen her works and who pooh-pooh them. 'That's not the way you're supposed to do this!' Right? And she recognizes that, but in a way she's kind of messing with the tradition, saying, 'Isn't your tradition sort of about plummeting the depths of the psyche and bringing up inner resources?'"

Braxton agrees. "I think she'd want [people] to know that one can experience the divine in everyday life. Through meditative contemplating, studying the images, you can get in touch with your own Buddha nature, because in Buddhism, everybody can be a Buddha. The Buddha said so. And particularly, she wanted to bring out the female — not as greater than the male, but the two as two halves of our being."


Two of a kind


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