On my reaching the years of puberty some of my female relations started teasing me about the sort of woman I would marry when I grew up. One of my mother’s sisters, in particular, used to speculate in this way when we met. ‘You will marry a short, fat little woman,’ she would tell me, ‘with short, fat little legs.’ I have no idea why my aunt was so sure that I would marry a short and fat woman rather than a tall and thin one. At that time of life I had no thought of marrying anyone of whatever size and shape, and I may have told my aunt as much. Strange to say, even when I was very young I used to tell people I would never marry, even though I did not know what marriage meant.
Many years later I was reminded of my aunt’s prediction when I read about the so-called Palaeolithic Venus. This was the name given by archaeologists to the 150 or more female figurines of various sizes that have been discovered in many parts of the world. Most of them belong to the period 24–19,000 BCE. The typical Palaeolithic Venus was short and fat. She had exaggeratedly large hips, breasts and vulva, but her head was small and featureless and her legs tapered downwards. Opinions differ as to the significance of these figurines. According to some archaeologists they were amulets, while others believe that their significance was religious and that they had a place in ritual. Whatever the truth may be, it is evident that for the men (and perhaps for the women) who fashioned them women were essentially producers of children. The figurines were fertility symbols, and fertility was important in ensuring the survival of the group.
Hundreds of centuries passed. By the time of the Italian Renaissance woman was still seen as being essentially the producer of children, but there had been changes. Her primary and secondary sexual characteristics were now less exaggerated. Her body had grown a head, so to speak, and her face wore an expression. The Venus depicted in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is very different from her Palaeolithic ancestress. I first encountered the famous painting in the pages of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, and years later I had the privilege of seeing the original in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was a dark December evening and the gallery was almost deserted, so that I was able to sit in front of the painting for as long as I wished. The goddess is standing on a huge shell, and her pearl-white body is naked. To the left two wind-gods with distended cheeks are blowing her towards her island home. With her right hand she covers her right breast while with her left she covers her vulva with the end of her blonde tresses. Her expression is one of wonder and delight. She is delighted to have escaped from the depths, delighted to look out on the world with its calm sea and tranquil sky. On the right a handmaid hastens forward holding a rich garment with which she is about to clothe the goddess. On the far right, just behind the handmaid, rise three leafy trees.
Besides depicting Venus and other pagan deities, Botticelli also painted the Virgin Mary, and although her features are sometimes those of the goddess, again there are changes. Whereas his Venus is naked, save for the half-concealed breasts and vulva, in his Madonna of the Magnificat the Virgin is completely draped. Here woman is not only emancipated from her sexuality but is seen as the embodiment of ideal beauty. Her expression, though, is very different from that of the goddess of the Birth of Venus. The latter is one of wonder and delight, whereas that of the Virgin Mary in the Madonna of the Magnificat is expressive of submission to the will of God. Perhaps it was only Leonardo Da Vinci who, among the artists of his day, was able to depict woman, in the person of the Virgin Mary, as a spiritual being. He does this in the Virgin of the Rocks, as well in his drawing of The Virgin with St Anne, both of which can be seen in the National Gallery in London. But Mary is Mother as well as Virgin, and in the works of Velázquez, Murillo, and El Greco, a century later, she breaks free of her child, so to speak, and is depicted in her own right. She is now a goddess as much as Venus ever was and her name is the Immaculate Conception. I painted her as such when I was thirteen or fourteen, depicting her standing on a crescent moon and wearing a white inner robe and a blue outer one. She has long black hair and her arms are crossed on her breasts. Above her head and to her left and right are small red roses. These were my own additions to the traditional depictions of her. Years later I noticed that in the Birth of Venus a few small red roses fall through the air.
Where there is a Palaeolithic Venus one might have expected to find a Palaeolithic Apollo. So far as I know, he has not been found and may never have existed. Something more interesting has been found. Three thousand years before Botticelli, sculptors in Ancient Greece created the Kouros, the so-called Archaic Apollo. The typical Kouros is a standing naked youth with broad shoulders and narrow hips and evident musculature. His arms hang down at his side and his face wears the famous archaic smile. He provides the pattern for an ideal of male beauty that culminates in the gods and athletes of the classical period, such as the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican and the Discobolos in Athens. That model may be said to have persisted down to the present day. A man with narrow shoulders and broad hips would be regarded as unnatural, as would a woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips. The breadth of a man’s shoulders and the narrowness of his hips may, of course, be greatly exaggerated so as to make him look more masculine. An example of this is the Phantom in the American comic strip. Similarly, the size of a woman’s breasts and hips may be greatly exaggerated too, so as to make her look more feminine in the sense of being sexually more attractive, as in the notorious ‘Page Three Girl’. For the ancient Greeks the male body was more beautiful than the female body, because of the greater harmony that existed between its different parts and because of its less obvious connection to its biological function. The genitals were never emphasized in the depiction of gods and athletes, though the satyrs, the companions of Dionysus, were sometimes endowed with enormous phalluses. For the Greeks beauty was not merely physical, but also mental. One might go as far as to say that their ideal was not just a healthy mind in a healthy body but a beautiful mind in a beautiful (male) body.
Not everyone will agree that the male body is more beautiful than the female body, and the idea will come as a surprise to many men and most women. The reason for this is that beauty is commonly identified with sexual attractiveness, and men find women beautiful because they find them sexually attractive. This is not to say that women have no share in beauty, but their beauty is in their face rather than in their body. If men have more beautiful bodies than women, women have more beautiful faces than men. But faces, whether of men or women, have expression, and the expression will depend on the person’s mental and emotional state. The effect of a face that is formally beautiful can be entirely spoiled if its expression is one of hatred, or contempt, or greed. Conversely even a homely face is beautiful when it has an expression of sympathy, or understanding, or content.
A striking example of the latter came within my experience many years ago, as I have related in The Rainbow Road. I was staying with a friend at Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in South India. Happening to explore the area to the west of the ashram we came upon a wattle and daub gate and beyond it a tiny mud-walled hut, thatched with palm leaves. Opening the gate and crossing the tiny cow-dunged courtyard we quietly opened the door of the hut. Inside was a single small room, completely bare, and inside the room, almost directly facing us, there sat, meditating, the most beautiful young man I had ever seen. Slim and fair-complexioned he sat there, with closed eyes, beautiful not only on account of his perfectly proportioned body, naked save for a small cloth but, even more so, on account of the beatific smile that irradiated his face. He was quite oblivious to our presence. Unable to take our eyes off him, we stood there for several minutes. Then, having closed the door behind us even more gently than we had opened it, we slowly made our way back to the Ashram. The expression on the young man’s face must have stayed with me, for some weeks later it resulted in the poem ‘The Face of Silence’ in which I changed the setting of my experience but not its nature. The last three verses were as follows:
O’er his still features breathed a calm
I had not seen before.
It drew me as some maiden’s charm
A lover to her door.
The light he saw I could not see,
And yet it seemed to glow
Upon his face more beauteously
Than sunlight on the snow.
At last I turned away, and blessed
The womb that gave him birth,
Knowing that there in truth was rest
And peace for those on earth.
I have described the young man in the hut as beautiful even though in modern times men are hardly ever described as such. At most they are ‘handsome’ or ‘good-looking’. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. In the course of the last few months I have listened to talking books of some of Anthony Trollope’s so-called political novels, and was surprised to find that he does not hesitate to describe some of his male characters as beautiful, and even to insist on the fact. One young man is actually compared to Apollo, and it was probably the Apollo Belvedere that Trollope had in mind. I have also come across an article by the journalist and author Jilly Cooper in which she interviews two footballers, one of whom was George Best, and candidly admits she was surprised to see how beautiful they were. Trollope and Jilly Cooper were speaking of physical beauty, but the young man in the hut was not only physically beautiful but spiritually beautiful, and he was spiritually beautiful on account of his expression. This does not mean that there are only two kinds of beauty, the physical and the spiritual. Beauty is of many kinds, and it has many degrees, for there is a hierarchy of beauty, just as there is a hierarchy of being and a hierarchy of knowledge. Plotinus gives us a glimpse of this hierarchy in his tractate ‘On Beauty’ in the Enneads:
Beauty is mostly in sight, but it is to be found too in things we hear, in combinations of words and also in music, and in all music [not only in songs]; for tunes and rhythms are certainly beautiful: and for those who are advancing upwards from sense-perception ways of life and actions and characters and intellectual activities are beautiful, and there is the beauty of virtue. If there is any beauty prior to these, it itself will reveal it.
But what is beauty? There are numerous definitions, but I have always liked that of St Thomas Aquinas, according to whom beauty is that which, when seen (or heard), delights, and that in which we take pleasure, or which we enjoy, or in which we delight, we will love. Thus there is a connection between beauty and love, the latter being our natural response to the former, and just as there are different degrees of beauty there will be different degrees of love. Where there is physical beauty, heavenly beauty, and spiritual beauty there will be, corresponding to these, earthly love, heavenly love, and spiritual love. Having seen heavenly beauty we may well look down upon earthly beauty, and so on, and there is a story in the Buddhist scriptures that illustrates this point. A young man named Sundarananda, or Handsome Nanda, is in love with a beautiful Sakya maiden with long hair. The Buddha happens to come for alms, and his bowl having been filled he hands it to Sundarananda and tells him to follow him back to the vihara. This the young man does rather unwillingly, all the time looking back over his shoulder to the maiden he has left behind. On their arrival at the vihara the Buddha directs Śāriputra and Mahamaudgalyāyana to ordain Nanda and the young man suffers himself to be made a monk. Though now a monk, he is unable to forget the Sakya maiden and finds it impossible to meditate. Knowing this, the Buddha by his magic power takes Sundarananda up to a higher, heavenly world and shows him the nymphs who live there. The nymphs are of extraordinary beauty, and on seeing them Sundanananda exclaims that in comparison with them the Sakya maiden is no better than a she-monkey with her nose and ears cut off. Back on earth he redoubles his efforts for the Buddha has assured him that if he meditates with sufficient intensity he will attain to that higher, heavenly world and there see the beautiful nymphs again. The other monks ridicule him for having such a lowly objective, and feeling shamed and humiliated he redirects his efforts and attains Nirvāṇa. In the story Sundarananda ungallantly declares that in comparison with the heavenly nymphs his former love is no better than a she-monkey with her nose and ears cut off. This is not to suggest that she has no beauty at all, for there are degrees of beauty. That the higher beauty is higher does not mean that the lower beauty is not beautiful, much less still that it is ugly. Another story in the Buddhist scriptures makes this clear. The Buddha tells the ascetic Bhaggava that, contrary to what some people say of him, he does not say that when one reaches up to the liberation called the beautiful one sees the whole universe as ugly; what he does say is that when one reaches up to the liberation called the beautiful one knows indeed what beauty is.
From the beautiful young man in the hut I passed on to my poem ‘The Face of Silence’, to the appreciation of male beauty by two very different writers, to Plotinus and the Enneads, to beauty and love, and so to the story of Sundarananda and to the liberation called the beautiful. I now want to return to the young man in the hut. In particular I want to say something about his beatific smile. He was oblivious of my presence and that of my friend, and his eyes were closed. He was therefore not smiling on account of anything he saw with his physical eyes, but because of what he saw with his inner vision. Perhaps he saw one of the heavenly nymphs, or the god Shiva, or perhaps he contemplated the impersonal Absolute of the Advaita Vedanta. Whatever he saw, he evidently delighted in it, and since he delighted in it he would have loved it. The degree of that love would have corresponded to the degree of the beauty he saw and since he was oblivious to the outer world it may be assumed that the beauty he saw, and the love which that beauty inspired, were not of the earthly kind. The principal difference between earthly love and heavenly love is that the former wishes to acquire, possess, and dominate its object and is associated with jealousy, as well as with fear and hatred of possible rivals. Heavenly love, on the other hand, experiences these emotions in a subtle form. Only spiritual or supersensible love is entirely free from them. It is not possible for one to experience earthly love at the same time that one experiences heavenly or spiritual love. One may enjoy earthly beauty at the same time that one experiences heavenly or spiritual beauty, but one will enjoy it on its own level, so to speak, and will not make it an object of attachment, whether gross or subtle. William Blake says much the same thing in his poem ‘Eternity’:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
The face of the young man in the hut was radiant with a beatific smile, a smile that was expressive of his experience of inner bliss. But what of features cast in bronze or carved in stone? Are these capable of communicating that experience? Over the centuries Buddhist artists have sought to depict the Buddha in such a way as to give the worshipper an idea of his spiritual greatness, their object nothing less than to depict perfect Enlightenment in a human form. Few have succeeded in doing this, even to a small extent, but their works are nonetheless among the masterpieces of world art. But what of the sculptors and painters themselves? Were they in touch, at least to an extent, with the spiritual experience that they were trying to express in their depiction of the Buddha? It is difficult to say. We do know that a Tibetan thangka painter should ideally meditate on the Buddha or bodhisattva he is painting and repeat their mantra as he works. Similarly, in the Eastern Orthodox Church the icon painter is exhorted to fast and pray. Besides Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Buddhist artists have depicted the Arahants or those who, by following the teachings of the Buddha, have attained Nirvāṇa. But not all these artists seek to represent, in the person of the Arahant, Nirvāṇa in a human form. In Chinese Buddhist art, Arahants are often depicted in a way that could be said to caricature them. Most are old, and some have crooked limbs and bulging eyes, while others are grimacing. Despite their common spiritual attainment the Arahants all have very individual characters, the artist seems to be telling us. In contrast to the Arahants, all of whom are monks, the great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteśvara and Mañjuśrī are beautiful young men wearing the garments and jewels of an Indian prince. Their expression is one of compassion, as in the unique wall painting of Padmapāṇi at Ajanta in central India. In Sino-Japanese Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara undergoes a transformation. From a beautiful young man he becomes a beautiful female figure known as Guanyin. She wears a long white robe, her head is covered, and her expression is one of motherly kindness. In the West she is popularly known as the Goddess of Mercy and her likeness to the Madonna has often been remarked on. Perhaps the most extraordinary of Avalokiteśvara’s transformations is the one in which he becomes the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Mahākāruṇika, or Greatly Compassionate One. The compassion of the Bodhisattva looks in every direction and he helps suffering sentient beings in every conceivable way. In the early days of the FWBO, now the Triratna Buddhist Community, I happened to be reading, or writing about, the myth in which Avalokiteśvara becomes the Greatly Compassionate One. As he contemplates the sufferings of sentient beings he is overwhelmed by compassion. So intense is the compassion his head splits into a thousand pieces. When I reached this point in the story I was very deeply affected. I started sobbing uncontrollably. In between my sobs I kept crying out to the friend who was with me, ‘His head split into a thousand pieces! His head split into a thousand pieces!’ This sobbing and crying out must have lasted for up to half an hour. I am not a person who sheds tears easily, and the experience has not been repeated, though the impression it made on me persists.
In these pages I have covered quite a lot of ground, but despite my aunt’s prediction at no point did I discover in myself a predilection for short, fat little women with short, fat little legs.