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What role does darkness play in the journey toward enlightenment? In this episode, hear about the power of darkness and what it means to embrace it. Musician, songwriter, and best-selling author Amanda Palmer shares the story of her childhood, the trajectory of her life as a street performer to musician, and how embracing her own darkness set her free.

Amanda begins by considering a painting of the powerful, fierce guardian Yama Dharmaraja. This fearsome deity wears a crown of skulls and a garland of freshly severed heads, is surrounded by flames, and stands astride a buffalo and human corpse. While ominous, this is actually a depiction of wisdom””one that destroys egos and fiercely protects Buddhist teachings.


Amanda Palmer is a singer, songwriter, playwright, pianist, author, director, and blogger who simultaneously embraces and explodes traditional frameworks of music, theater, and art. She first came to prominence as part of the punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, earning global applause for their inventive songcraft and wide-ranging theatricality. Her solo career has proven equally brave and boundless, featuring such groundbreaking works as the fan-funded Theatre Is Evil, which made a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 in 2012 and remains the top-funded original music project on Kickstarter. Her 2013 TED talk “The Art of Asking” has been viewed over 20 million times worldwide. Palmer expanded her philosophy into the New York Times best-selling memoir The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.


Yama Dharmaraja; Tibet; 18th century ; Pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.409 (HAR 855)

Yama Dharmaraja is one of several terrifying forms Bodhisattva Manjushri assumed to defeat the Lord of Death. He is black or dark blue in color, fiercely animated, and wields a skull-headed cudgel and a coiled lasso. Wearing a crown of skulls and a garland of freshly severed heads, he is surrounded by flames and stands astride a buffalo and human corpse.

This black-ground painting evokes the macabre setting in which Yama Dharmaraja resides: a corpse-strewn funereal ground. Around him are four wrathful figures from his entourage, each haloed by flames, dancing wildly on a body and clutching a gore-laden skull cup. In the foreground, an offering of organs associated with the five senses brims from a skull bowl. Sitting in a small eddy of tranquility above this visual torrent is Bodhisattva Manjushri, whose manifestation as the terrifying Yama Dharmaraja is the means for defeating death.


AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art with Vincent Baker, Dawn Eshelman, Jamie Lawyer, Sandrine Milet, Elena Pakhoutouva, and Dawnette Samuels. It was produced in collaboration with Sound Made Public, with Tania Ketenjian, Katie McCutcheon, and Philip Wood.

Special thanks to Karen Sorensen for additional consulting.

All music for AWAKEN was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.


This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, The Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, as well as by generous donations from the Museum’s Board of Trustees, individual donors, and members.

AWAKEN is sponsored by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available.