The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 1

The notion of beauty is one of those cyclical arguments; we will never have a universal set of rules that defines beauty.

The reason for this is really not too complicated – we are all individuals and culturally diverse. The problem is that humans have a tendency to be imperialistic, controlling and arrogant. In our ignorance, we seem to be quite comfortable imposing our value system onto others. Possibly, this is the reason for many of the problems we are faced with today (such as wars and national conflicts) but this is another conversation.

The structuralist paradigm of ‘one size fits all’ is a form of small-minded parochial thinking. For some reason, we are threatened by ‘otherness’. We seem to want to force everyone else to our way of thinking. This is the case with politics and religion, even music. My opinion, my taste, my view is better, correct and the only one acceptable. Why is this the case? I will not attempt to explore this complex question in this post. Rather, I am hoping that we are now in an age where it is not only okay to be unique but, also, we have come to see cultural diversity as something that should be encouraged, respected and celebrated.

Globalization does not help but rather than seeing it as a destructive force, we can see it as a reason to strengthen, invigorate and give us a conceptual base to reinterpret our unique traditions and evolve them within this new context of globalization and technology.

iToday, diversity is ‘beauty’. If we were all exactly the same, that would be a terrifying ‘desert’ and the ‘ideal’ human would very quickly become ugly and boring to us. Beauty is a consequence of the times we live in. It has shifted to being of a passive nature to one where we, as a society, are participants and co-creators.


We need to mature further as humans to accepting and appreciating the pleasure of what other people see and treasure as beautiful.

I will explore beauty in the age of technology next week in Part 2.

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Shaping and Reshaping

Here is an excellent documentary of how a simple image can become the source and inspiration for ideation. It illustrates a few of the points I make in previous posts.

“This … video … [is] about the new language of data and its impact on culture. The video [was] … created for the VISUALIZED conference, Nov 8 & 9, 2012, in New York City”.

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Masks – A Visual Expression of Culture

My first encounter with masks was in 1979. I accidentally walked into the Irma Stern Museum when I was a first year student at the University of Cape Town. The collection located on the lower campus (not sure where it is now) consisted of African masks. I was transfixed and decided that I was going to collect my own. My collection is modest and it is restricted to African Masks. Strangely, my most precious mask was purchased in Lisbon (Portugal).

My interest in masks has spanned at least 30 years. I even purchased a mask in Rabat (Morocco) – a place that has no mask tradition (the mask was originally from Ghana). All art and iconography in Islam has no animal or human depiction.

I was very surprised to discover an active and thriving mask culture in Bhutan. The practice is more thriving than any place I know in Africa.

In Bhutan, Vajrayana Buddhism (see previous post) is the official state religion – the only country in the world where this is the case. However, before the onset of Buddhism in the 8th century A.D., a form of animism (Animistic Bon) was the religion of Bhutan (the belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena).

In this early period, rituals were performed to eradicate evil spirits who brought misery and sickness to the population. From observing current sacred masks and folk dances in local temples, monasteries and public celebrations, it is clear that the early animistic traditions have evolved and been incorporated into current religious cultural life.

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Small sample of Masks - images by Rui Martins

Small sample of Masks – images by Rui Martins

The Tshechu (religious) festivals of Bhutan are where one finds the very special and unique expression of the Bhutanese blend of devotion. The cham dances (only danced by monks or male members of the royal academy of performing arts – wearing brightly colored clothes and often masks) are the centre of these festivals. These dances are used as mystical teachings and are manifestations of meditational mandalas of vajrayana Buddhism in three-dimensional space – ‘visuality at its best’.

When I decided to explore this subject, I did not realize the complexity and multi-layered nature of the topic. I cannot do the topic justice in a post; it really needs serious study, especially to surface the symbolism as a visual expression of culture. Even the simple patterns in textiles have meaning and even these appear to not have a single meaning, instead the meanings of patterns are open to interpretation. They are contextual; meaning emerges and is open to interpretation by the narrator within a context. The iconic meaning is fixed but, once the icon is placed within a specific relationship with a context, a new narrative flows. I am sure you can see the endless possibilities. But then, who said that culture is as simple as 1+1?. Subtitles, nuances and the construction of meaning is a constant.

This is probably an explanation as to how culture evolves and transforms into higher forms of visual sophistication. Another topic to be explored in depth.

Back to mask-wearing, dancing monks. These dances tend to be performed in Dzongs (I will have a future post dedicated to two such amazing buildings. Dzongs were originally fortresses as well as temples).

The Dromchhoe festival, which generally includes mask dances, is dedicated to Mahakala (Yeshe Goenpo) and Mahakali (Palden Lhamo). These are Bhutan’s two principle protective deities and a Tshechu that is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (Indian Tantric Buddhist adept from the Swat Valley – credited for establishing the vibrant mask culture).

Mask Dance - image by Joseph Goh

Mask Dance – image by Joseph Goh

According to oral tradition, Guru Padmasambhva convinced the ancient mountain gods of the old religion and deities to become protectors of the new faith (Buddhism). These angry deities (depicted by fierce animal masks) become the protectors of the people against evil spirits. The masquerade becomes the visual act of expression of the cultural dominance over nature enacted in public to demonstrate the hero (the religion – the good) over evil – demonstrating to the ‘people’ that faith in the ritual is the means to ‘peace’.

There are clearly parallels between this and other religions. However subtle the ritual might be, they remain visual enactments that encompass movement and focused transfer of meaning onto objects or images. I wonder if there are not even parallels between these notions and forms of traditional management of control? I am sure one could draw parallels between these as well. Another research topic!

The masks become meditation in action. It is taboo to explain the mystical significance of the mask dances, unless one has been initiated into the Tantric ‘sciences’ and received special blessings. This means that as observers, we can only accept and hope that the ‘good’ is being done.

Tantric Buddhism invokes imagery associated with death. Such imagery points both to the end of ego which is associated with spiritual transformation and to the all‐too‐brief duration of our physical existence. The tormentors of the eight hot hells, according to Buddhist mythology, are all animal headed characters driving home the idea that animals have power and are awe‐inspiring.

The Tshechus are an enactment of the Buddhist belief of life after death as most of the series in the mask dances depict life after death. The dances have two functions. At the basic level, they entertain the populace while encouraging them to live good lives. The second function is to elevate humans to be liberated from earthly torment and gain enlightenment.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu - preparation.  Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu – preparation. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

The mask dancers enter into deep meditative trances, temporarily becoming an expression of the deities they represent. It is believed that the dance steps are not choreographed but are channeled through meditation trance from celestial teachings. No women are allowed to perform these dances.

I am told that the mask dances can be grouped into three categories:

  1.  Didactic dances, which are dances with morals;
  2.  Dances that purify and protect a place from demonic spirits; and
  3.  Dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche over evil and malignant spirits.

When one sees the images of the masks, all this becomes very clear.

Some dances explained:

  1. Zhanag (Dance of the black hats): this dance dates back to the 9th century A.D. It tells the story of the subjugation of an anti‐Buddhist Tibetan King Langdarma in 842 AD. The dancers beat the drum and pound their foot on the ground proclaiming victory over the evil.
  2. Drametse Nga Chham: originating in the 16th century. Twelve or more dancers wearing yellow skirts and animal masks beat drums as they dance. They represent Guru’s entourage. UNESCO proclaimed Drametse Ngachham as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity during its third proclamation in Paris in November 2005.
  3. Durdag: dance of the masters of the cremation grounds. Their mission is to protect the eight cremation grounds in the cosmic diagram from demonic influences.
  4. Tungam: The dance of the fearsome deities. Dancers wear masks of wrathful deities and represent Guru’s entourage and are armed with ritual daggers.
  5. Dranyen Chham: Or the lute dance. This dance celebrates the founding and spread of the Drukpa school.
  6. Raksha Mangchham: The dance of the judgment of the dead. The god of the dead‐‐‐Shinge Choeki Gyalpo – presides over the dead with the guardians of heaven and hell, while the Rakshas (Aides to the god of death). narrate the tale of the deceased and his actions are weighed on a scale. Subsequently, the dead are brought to justice and are either sent to heaven or hell based on their deeds.
Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Strange – as I write this, I am reminded of the play I saw of Doctor Faustus in Cape Town back in 1979 (Wikipedia has an interesting entry – particularly look at ‘Damnation or salvation’) – there were strong parallels in the visual imagery. Humanity, no matter where, has the same needs and concerns to protect itself of the ‘evil’. This obviously depends on what your beliefs are. But what remains fascinating is the need one has to visually externalize these beliefs and to enact them as a ritual. Why is this the case? Why don’t we enact them mentally?

There must be a very strong reason for the visual demonstration humans have to externalize the story in a visual form. The written equivalent would be a very poor substitute. One could not possibly capture all the details or the gestures enacted simultaneously by the different dances and hope to transmit the complete interconnected meaning and messages.

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Signs and Symbols – National Emblem of Bhutan

In this post, I look at the National Emblem of Bhutan – looking at the symbolism and embedded in the visual are various meanings.

The emblem of Bhutan

The emblem of Bhutan

Cradled in the folds of the Himalayas…”  we find Bhutan. The country has used its geographic isolation to retain its cultural identity and to protect itself from outside cultural influences, with the goal of preserving its cultural heritage and independence. The country has a population of 741,822. This represents 19 people per square km; compared to 3 in Australia; 17 in New Zealand; 259 in the UK; 34 in the USA; 319 in Philippines; 93 in Spain; and 119 in France.

The country is bordered in the south by India and to the north by China. Bhutan has allowed foreigners to visit in limited numbers since the 1980s. It has used this strategy to preserve its cultural heritage, which dates back to the mid-17th century.

The emblem was first legally codified as a national symbol in the Constitution in 2008. The national emblem is contained by a circle, at the centre of which is two crossed vajras located above a lotus flower. On either side of the vajras are two (male and female) white dragons. A wish-fulfilling jewel is located above them. There are four other jewels inside the circle where the two vajras intersect.

The vajras means both thunderbolt and diamond. It is a symbolic ritual object that symbolizes both the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force). The vajras represent the harmony between secular and religious power. They symbolize the spiritual and secular traditions of the Kingdom based on the four spiritual undertakings of Vajrayana Buddhism. A double dorje (Tibetan name for vajra) represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain Tantric deities – best understood as archetypes representing aspects of enlightenment.

Double and single varas

Double and single vajras

The lotus symbolizes purity, absence of defilement and ‘spontaneous’ generation and divine birth. The pink lotus is the supreme lotus and generally reserved for the highest deity. It is the lotus of the historical Buddha.



The jewel expresses sovereign power. The two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country, which they proclaim with their great voice, the thunder. Dragons in Bhutan are called Druk. It is the “Thunder Dragon” of Bhutanese mythology and a Bhutanese national symbol. Bhutanese leaders are called Druk Gyalpo, Dragon Kings.

Two dragons

Two dragons

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The Consecration Ritual of a New Building at RUB (Royal University of Bhutan).

In this post, I briefly explore what the Bhutanese form of Buddhism is and how it influences all aspects of daily life in Bhutan. As a way of explanation, I will capture an event – the blessing of a building. I conclude that symbolism acts as a loose guiding structure in events that are visual expressions of a sense making process, where meaning is an emergent property that results from the dynamic interaction between the adaptive agents and rich historic cultural symbolism.

Bhutan retains the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion, also called Vajrayāna (the diamond or thunderbolt way). This plays a strong and central role in the life of the Bhutanese people. It is far-reaching and influences all aspects of cultural and even secular activities. such as the cleansing of buildings and even reverence for the land and its well-being.

Rituals like cleansing of buildings are dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche or protective deities. The essence of the ceremony is to banish bad spirits and invite positive, auspicious new spirits into the building and to bless all activities that will take place within the structure.

After being in Bhutan for a month, I was constantly reminded that the Bhutanese form of Buddhism is different. This insistence led me to attempt to clarify.

The distinctive feature of Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations. Vajrayana Buddhism claims to provide an accelerated path to enlightenment. This is achieved through use of tantra techniques, which are practical aids to spiritual development and esoteric transmission (explained below). Whereas other forms of Buddhism provides ways to achieve nirvana over the course of many lifetimes.

Vajrayana techniques lead to full enlightenment – possible in a shorter time – the belief is that it might be possible even in a single lifetime. I am informed that Theravada (practiced in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand) or Mahayana (umbrella body for a great variety of schools) practices are not invalid; the difference is that they represent slower paths to enlightenment. Interesting to highlight that the goal of the Mahayana and Vajrayana sects is to become a bodhisattva; whereas the goal for Theravada practice is liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) by achieving nirvana. For those interested in understanding the differences, I found this interesting website.

Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book.

I know I cannot possibly understand all the rituals that took place and their symbolism in relation to the culture and the religion. I might have an excuse; it is only deeply understood through esoteric learning. The point that interests me, however, is the fact that symbolism is strongly visual, not only in the form of an image but through rituals that use objects, movement in space and temporary activities. These activities are not necessarily strict and precise as in military precision – the impression we would be left with if we were to follow though text. When something is described in the form of text, the tendency is to understand the event, ceremony or ritual as a linear and strictly orchestrated process, with no room for interpretation and emergence.

My observation and experience from the blessing ceremony of the building was that there was a very loose set of symbolic principles that acted on the structure within which the system (ritual) was enacted. However, there appeared to be room for learning and adaptation within the specific context. There were quite a number of guests (non-Buddhists) that were part of the ritual. They impacted on the system yet the system adapted and adjusted as the ignorant agents learned the principles and in turn changed and adapted the ceremony.

The ceremony started at 6.00am on 12 December and concluded with a marvellous dance with all participants at 2.00pm on the same day. The dance in a square circle was truly wonderful – the photos do not do justice at all.

I decided that I would let the images speak for themselves and treat this post as a visual essay. Unfortunately, my camera wanted to play by its own rules and some settings changed at some point and so the quality of images are not the best. I think the camera might have been thinking that it too was an active participating agent!

If you click on the images, you should be able to see them in a separate window in more detail. If you press back-arrow on your browser, you should be able to return to the post – sorry for the inconveniance.

Sequence 1

Sequence 1

Sequence 2

Sequence 2

Sequence 3

Sequence 3