My introduction to thangka painting
Life is suffering. There is a cause for suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment. This is one of the universal truths of Buddhism. I know this, not because I am a practitioner of Buddhism, but because I had the pleasure of attending a talk about thangka paintings at the Rubin Museum last night. The event was hosted by the CUNY Baccalaureate program, my Alma mater, and the talk was conducted by Michal Prettyman, a recent graduate and accomplished painter.
Thangka painting is a Buddhist practice. The depth and majesty of this art form is evident in a single glance at one of these beautiful works. These paintings are immense, rich, detailed, and precise. To the untrained eye, one might describe these works as masterful depictions of Buddhist teachings; the truth is far more complex.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, thangka paintings are not merely depictions of Buddhist principles, they are actual manifestations of deities. Although the Rubin museum has a beautiful collection of these paintings, viewing them in gallery setting is out of context. Thangka paintings are meant to be functional, they are created for practitioners of Buddhism who enshrine them in their homes and integrate them into their practice.
The detail and precision in these paintings is truly astounding, the lines are fine and uniform throughout, the color is rich and devoid of brush strokes. The creation of a thangka painting is a process steeped in tradition. Monks do not create these complex and beautiful scenes out of sheer inspiration; they must follow a rigorous outline. A thangka painting is created according to a plan, in which is each stage is meticulously designed. The final stage in the creation of a Thangka painting is a process called ‘the opening of the eyes,’ during which the deities eyes are drawn in. This process is accompanied by a ceremony.
The rigorous rules surrounding Thangka painting are crucial to the intended function of these works. A thangka painting is a manifestation of a deity, as opposed to a mere depiction of that deity. The specificity of the process is essential in order to ensure that the deity will manifest itself in the finished product. The tiniest error makes the painting useless and forces the artist to throw it out and begin again.
The act of thangka painting is a form of meditation. Michal Prettyman had recently returned from a study abroad in Tibet where he had had the opportunity to study thangka painting. He spoke of having to sit for days, drawing the same flower over and over. In Thangka painting, as in all Buddhist practices, the practitioner works to detach him or herself from the product of her work. To draw a line in a thangka painting is to detach yourself from the outcome of that line and merely let the line come. It is a practice of movement without attachment to results.
There is no signature at the bottom of the Tonga painting, the artist is expected to erase all of his footprints. There is no room for ego in the practice of thangka, the finished products are dictated by tradition not the artist’s own inspiration.
My fascination with thangka paintings came from a stark contrast between this artistic tradition and my own experiences as an artist. I am a dancer, trained in ballet and modern dance in a Western conservatory setting. Both the finished product and the process of Tonga seemed very different from conceptions of art I am accustomed to. The idea that the work of art could manifest its object, especially something so powerful as a deity, is completely foreign to me. The detachment of the artist from the work is an equally bizarre concept to someone raised in the Western artistic tradition.
In my experience, art in the West is almost self-consciously separate from life. It is a form of entertainment at times mimicking or commenting on life, but never transcending the realm of art, imitation. The power of the thangka paintings, that they were revered as deities in themselves, was a truly astounding concept to me. Besides the metaphysical power of the thangka paintings, I was struck by the detachment of the artists from the paintings. The removal of ego from the painting process and the anonymity of these artists seems bizarre from a Western perspective. In many Western art forms the emphasis is on work, perseverance, and study, all of which is very goal oriented. The idea that in order to create a thangka painting the artist must detach themselves from the outcome of the line is beautiful, but also terrifying to an artist infused with a sense of agency.
Despite these stark differences between Western and Buddhist art, there is some common ground in the notion of transcendence. In the West, people often talk about an unnamed quality that defines great performers, that takes technique and turns it into something that goes beyond the technical. We don’t name it; we often give it up to talent, but we believe in it.
I am not a Buddhist. I am very much attached. In fact, the main thread of my experiences has been attachment; profound love and caring for what I do. Throughout much of my career the struggle has been finding the ease in my art, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a teacher tell me “Just dance!” or “Feel the movement!” Often I’ve met these corrections with frustration, I’ve been trained to meet my art with work and dedication, but you can’t force a correction like “Just dance!”
Dance training in the West is rigorous and physical. We are not taught to lead with our egos, however the visual essence of the art coupled with the competitive nature of the industry tends to bring one’s ego to the fore. In this kind of atmosphere it is easy to forget that the technique is just a vessel, that the true art transcends the movement and exists in the expression. The insight I got into thangka paintings last night reminded me of this perspective.
For more information check out the following ressources:
The Reuben museum http://www.rmanyc.org/collection
For more information about thangka visit Tibetan paintings at http://www.tibetanpaintings.com/