In Italy it’s the Catholic churches. In India it’s the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. You can’t swing a squirrel without hitting one. Even though they are—each and every one—amazing creations of detail, artistry, and otherworldly inspiration, after a while they all start to look alike. The thrill is gone.
Even so, Nidup insisted we see just one more. He took us inside the top floor of Pemayangtse monastery in Pelling, where he showed us a manmade model of Padmasambhava’s heavenly home. Undeniably impressive, it took one monk five years to build this eight-foot-tall, seven-tiered wooden structure with all sorts of technicolor demons and angels and rainbows. The perfect playhouse for a four-year-old monk, except that it was entirely enclosed in glass.
“Look at this,” he whispered as he walked to one of the room’s murals and lifted a square of cloth tacked to the wall. The curtain revealed a blue-toned Buddha with a white-toned woman in his lap, facing him. Despite the implausibility of the position, it looked like they were having a two-toned visit of the conjugal sort.
“This is the first of four stages of the Tantra. Embarrassing, I know,” Nidup said, looking at my red face, “but you must understand the teachings.”
I tried to look academic and mature. But when he mentioned something about “the Great Bliss Instructions of the Lower Orifice,” my face fired up like a Bunsen burner. Nidup’s words faded in and out as I tried to appear casual, hoping this lecture on spiritual rebirth through coitus would be a quicky.
It’s not that I’m a prude. It’s just that for the past few days, I’d gotten to know Nidup as sort of a jolly, asexual uncle who liked to talk about comics and his favorite 1970s American B movies (Crazy Boys in the Supermarket and Whiskey and the Ghost). Now he was talking about lingams, yonis, and what looked to me like monk porn.
For the bodhisattva the sex act equals an opportunity for spiritual power. “Without woman, you see, the cycle cannot be complete. Man cannot be strong.” He raised his arm, folded at the elbow like Popeye. “Tough. See? Tough.”
Nidup moved to the next curtain and lifted it with a big smile. “Here is the next stage. See the energy? It is building up!” He pointed to the squiggly lines emanating from the couple’s bodies in a radius. Now the Buddha had turned white and the woman blue.
In the third stage they both turned blue. And they both looked more than a little crazy. The squiggly lines from the previous frame now blasted from their auras like electrified hair. Their eyeballs bulged. And one could guess where this whole thing was headed.
Finally, Nidup raised the last veil. The blue Buddha had transformed into a monster with outrageous bullfrog eyes and beefy muscles. Flames shot in every direction around him. His hands curled into fists. Demons floated around his head. The Buddha who looked so serene in the first frame had transmogrified into a wrathful road-rager cut off in morning traffic. Demonic to the extreme.
“Now he has exploded. See that?” Nidup looked at me. It didn’t look familiar to me in an ejaculatory way, but I nodded anyhow. Between Nidup’s limited English and my limited understanding, I was pretty sure I hadn’t accurately absorbed any of the Tantric teachings.
“The lesson here,” said Nidup, “is that the man, he must control himself. Otherwise, you see what happens.” He dropped the cloth and stood in silence.
It would have been the perfect time to ask deep, probing questions about the philosophy of Tantra and why it made sense to paint such titillating scenes inside the home of celibate men (how were they supposed to focus on Enlightenment with such distractions? No wonder they kept the images covered).
But my mind turned up nothing. Mortification had flash-fried my prefrontal cortex.