Karma Tsering Lama, a Tibetan living in Nepal, is one of the best known contemporary tangka painters. His Dharmapala School of Thangka Painting was one of the first institutions to feature the images from Himalayan Buddhism on the Internet. He and his lucid, meticulously detailed work were in Montreal between June 11th and 15th, 2003.
On June 12th, Karma Lama generously spoke with me about the development of this unique Tibetan art form, which he emphasized can never be divorced from its Buddhist context. In fact, it is actually incorrect to refer to thangka painting as an "art form" since, according to the Aesthetics definition, an art object is intended to stimulate feelings.
A tangka painting is more in the nature of an artefact. It is the product of a craftsman or -woman, and its purpose is entirely utilitarian; it is intended for use as a support for Buddhist -- primarily Vajrayana -- practice.
In the global marketplace, a scroll painting can have an artistic or decorative use because here anything can be had for a price and be put to any purpose. But the genuine article is produced for one well-defined purpose only -- to guide a specific tantric practice. That is, it is used to assist in Buddhist Generation Stage yoga.
Karma Lama said that the painter of a tangka has a responsibility: He or she must take care to produce accurately the deity or deities -- as far as colour, expression, mudras, attributes, vehicle, etc. The purchaser, too, has a responsibility -- to care for the image and to use it appropriately.
There are very few generic thangkas. Each belongs to a specific denomination, and therefore details can differ depending on the lineage of transmission or the teaching tradition. That is true even for such general subjects as the Wheel of Existence or The Life of Buddha. For example, one tradition that is exclusively monastic features robed monks in some segments of the Wheel. Also, the three symbolic animals at the Wheel's hub can occupy a variety of positions.
Some subjects such as the historic figure of Milarepa can be portrayed in a such a way as to represent a certain text or denominational affiliation. In the pose in which he is bending his ear while singing a hymn or doha, the reference is to The 100, 000 Songs. That was the version displayed at the exhibition. The central figure is surrounded by vignettes from Milarepa's life story that are labeled, in neat gold Tibetan U-chen script, with the appropriate quotation.
Two other works were particularly astounding. One was a golden thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni (the "historical" Buddha.) From a distance, we see the central figure surrounded by an aureole. As we draw near, we can make out the two main disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, at the foot of the lion-supported throne. Now we see that the face of the central figure is that of a man well past middle age -- this effect is most subtle since the constraints of traditional iconography do not permit much variation. Up close, we can see that the aura is actually composed of the twelve key events in the Master's life. Each is drawn in elaborate detail using the finest vermilion line. Particularly moving is the scene at top right, where surrounding the raised bed on which the Buddha lies are some monks in a variety of poses expressive of their distress -- one wipes his eyes; another raises his palms to frame his cheeks in a characteristic expression of dismay.
A third thangka, also exceptional, was of a wheel of Eight Forms of Guru Rinpoche. It is suspended in the mist, supported by the coils of a descending dragon. The central image of Padmasambhava is young and smiling.
Not only is Karma Tsering Lama a disciplined master of iconography and technique, but within the strict limitations of traditional form, he is expressive of "precious human existence" in a most refined way. And we can also see in his work a familiarity and love for nature and the animals that dwell there. Such fat happy deer and chubby yaks! Even the antelope skin that serves as a seat for Mila came from a satisfied beast. The hairs on the tiger tail that dangles from the robe of the great god who supports the Wheel of Life gives the impression of a healthy fluffiness. This was evidently accomplished by alternating bands of orange and dark grey with delicate interruptions of tiny white strokes or scratches.
Lama, who is a Nyingma practitioner, spoke to me about two important contributions made by the painters of Tibet. To the original Indian form that began as a flat depiction on a monochrome background, Himalayan specialists made two innovative contributions: First, they introduced elements of natural landscape in the area surrounding the main subject that is usually the figure of a deity. That innovation fulfilled the important psychological need to anchor the figures in a way that facilitates relating to them. In this way the visualization process of "generation" lends support to the fundamental doctrine concerning the subjective nature of perception.
The second contribution relates to accuracy in the depiction of tantric instructions. For example, when Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) is described in the sadhana as "white in colour, like snow on the mountaintop" (here, Lama quoted the actual Tibetan verses) these painters went to great technical lengths to produce that shade of white. They were not satisfied with a hue that seems like an absence of colour, nor any milky or chalky tone. Therefore, through the centuries they developed and passed on from master to student their great skill at creating a wide range of shades using a very restricted palette.
During a later demonstration, the artist told how it used to take him two full days to grind from "raw" stone (such as azurite, malachite, etc.) a powder fine enough to create pigment. Nowadays he uses powdered tempera, but only in primary colors. Fine powdered gold is also used -- as an embellishment or to render certain special effects.
He also explained how the binder (or, glue) comes from the skin of a yak, which is twice boiled and then only the liquid remaining from the second time is strained and dried. This gelatin, in the form of caramel colored flakes, is kept in containers. When mixed with water and pigment, it serves as a binder in the making of paint. It is also mixed with gesso to prepare the surface of the soft white cotton that is stretched and laced to a wooden frame to serve as the "canvas." This is sun-dried and then burnished on both sides with a flat stone kept for the purpose. Brushes used to be made from the hairs trimmed from the mid scruff, or mane, of a domestic cat, though nowadays the widely available small brushes with red plastic handles do the job.
Lama began painting at the age of 9. He is 42 now, and people often ask when he intends to write a book on his specialty. He maintains that he prefers to practice and teach his craft. Unfortunately, there are few students who are willing to practice and study for the minimum five years that he considers necessary before a person is considered competent.
On the 15th, the lama began his lecture, to a group of 20 or so, on the system of proportions and units (known as "thumbs") that is traditionally used for the drawing of male buddhas and bodhisattvas. One of the visitors had the presumption to use the demonstration as his own private lesson, interjecting observations and demanding clarification for his own ends. At first this self-absorbed behaviour seemed outrageously rude, but soon the sporadic interventions took on the character of a theatrical device intended on keeping the discourse at a mundane level. The lama skilfully restored equanimity and decorum by leading a brief period of meditation.
Not many of those present seemed to have any comprehension of the distinctive role played by deity practice in Buddhism. There was a general aura of mental confusion, but this is a predominant characteristic of the human condition, as we know.
There were a number of old tangkas from a "private collection" lining an interior wall, most notably one of dancing Vajrayogini and one of Lhamo. Along with these, there were other imposing images on the surrounding walls and several sculptures of various personages and deities from a variety of traditions were also displayed lending an atmosphere of groundless exoticism that was sometimes distracting.
Fondation PJY, which sponsored this visit, is to be commended for having afforded Montrealers an exceptional opportunity. The membership in particular will undoubtedly derive great benefit from this exposure to these special objects that liberate through seeing.
on the Internet: He is not the author of the web site text.
sadhana: text for ritual practice or the form of worship that follows such a text or tradition. A service (individual or group) normally includes an invocation, description, making offerings, singing praises, etc.
liberate through seeing: Buddhism teaches that physical existence provides a unique opportunity since each of the sense faculties can act as a channel for liberation from all suffering ie. for Bodhi (Sanskrit word for Awakening, usually called Enlightenment.)