Tibetan Thanka Paintings

Tibetan Thanka Paintings
Tibet, with its isolated, harsh geographical location and history of political and social remoteness would seem an unlikely place to provide a ?cradle for creative art? (Bailey 22). Yet it is in this desolate section of the world that one of the most intriguing artistic cultures has been cultivating over hundreds of centuries. One facet of what makes Tibetan art so unique and interesting is its interdependency on its religious beliefs.
In Tibet one might use the words ?religion? and ?culture? almost as synonyms, especially for the arts?literature, drama, painting, and sculpture. Not only were they inspired by religion, but religion was their very raison d?être (Pal 18).

Tibetan thanka[1] paintings are a wonderful example of the interconnectedness of religion and art. These images are ?not meant to be the object of simple idolatry? (Jackson 11), but rather take on a more interactive role, which can be applied to nearly every facet of traditional Tibetan life. Tibetan Buddhism pervades all aspects of the creation and use of thanka paintings?in the training and requirements of the artists who create the paintings, in the physical creative process itself, in the iconography used, and in all the painting?s multiple functions. Tibetan thanka paintings, throughout their entire lifespan?from concept to consecrated image?help devotional religious activity for Tibetan Buddhism[2].

Thanka Artists

Types of Artists

Tibetan thanka artists, of which there were two types, monks and professionals, work within the confines of religious tradition. Trained professionals made up the majority of thanka artists, all of whom studied for years under strict instruction. Lamas were also involved in the creation of many paintings, mainly in a supervisory capacity (Pal 25). The chief centers of Tibetan art were the monasteries that often supplied artists with work (Pal 24). Usually, professional artists either had their own studios or were attached to individual monasteries for the duration of specific jobs.

Being an artist was not automatically hereditary and any talented adolescent boy could join a studio as an apprentice. The training period each child underwent was usually extensive and demanding:

The apprentice was expected to study drawing for about sixteen months, simple coloring for ten months, and mixed coloring for at least a year. Only then was he allowed to paint under his teacher?s strict vigilance. This he did for many years before he was qualified to set up his own workshop (Pal 25). An artist was required to undergo such rigorous training because the task he was involved in was more than physical painting. It was ?the physical invocation of deities?sometimes of ferocious aspect? as well (Brzostoski 7).

Artistic and Religious Requirements

Not only was the artistic training challenging, but Tibetan Buddhism required that its thanka painters be ?tantric initiates?, in at least the formal sense, as well (Jackson 12). This means any artist who depicted the deities belonging to the four classes of Tantras had to have been ritually initiated into each of these classes. In fact, most Tibetan painters had undergone such initiations (Jackson 12). Another demand of the artist was that he should be of ?high moral quality? and he should know the holy scriptures exceptionally well (Brzostoski 7). This was required because essentially the entire production of a thanka was a sacred ceremony. Often, as part of the process, either the artist or his assistants would constantly recite prayers or sacred scripture and the artist?s own creative ability would be dictated by this recitation. Through this recitation the paintings themselves became incarnations of certain sounds (Brzostoski 7). Afterward, observers would get mental ?mantras? from them, which was considered to be more valuable than reciting them aloud (Brzostoski 7).

Even though the artist?s thanka was religiously arranged according to written texts, he still had to become one with the spirit he was attempting to invoke. The first step to connect with the essence of a deity was as simple as starting in the correct work environment. Since the image the artist was making was sacred, he ?sat with his materials in a place properly clean for a sacred act. Auspicious days were chosen, usually the fifteenth and the thirteenth of the month? (Brzostoski 7). It is often emphasized that the artist in Tibet was a ?yogin?[3] and that painting was ?a yogic process: The painter does not copy from nature: led through yoga to a state of ecstasy, he sees the images of the gods with the eyes of the spirit, not with those of the flesh? (Pal 26). I would assume that this is a reference to the ideal state of an artist and not to the literal creative process. One example of extreme instruction given to an artist concerning the conditions under which to paint was for a painting of Hevajra. It said that the painter must paint under these circumstances:

In a lonely spot at noon on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight, in a ferocious state of mind from the drinking of some wine, with the body naked and adorned with the bone accoutrements; one should eat the sacrament in its foul and impure form, having placed one?s own mudra at one?s left side?? and it goes on (Pal 26).

As I stated earlier, it is doubtful these instructions were actually followed verbatim, but the ritual process was elementary to the creation of many thankas. Even the lowest class of painters would, on special occasions, produce thankas through a process of ritual and meditation. The most common of these rituals was the ?day-thanka? (nyin thang), which was a thanka completed within one day with great ritual and ceremony (Jackson 12).

Artistic Style

Although certain artists or schools of artists may have worked primarily for specific monasteries at times, and thus some styles became associated with those monasteries and their orders, artistic styles in general cannot be classified by ?sectarian affiliation? (Rhie 52). Many distinct stylistic elements?conceivably almost as many as individual artists or schools of artists?can be distinguished from within the intricate development of Tibetan painting (Rhie 52).

Close technical examination may on occasion reveal (beneath what might appear to be a rigidly doctrinal and iconographically predetermined surface image) the practices and idiosyncrasies of its construction, which allow a fleeting vision of the artist at work: the freedom of expression in the underdrawing, the confident energy or the restrained precision of the brushstroke, the variable fluidity of the paint itself, the occasional mistakes and omissions, or the breaking of conventions: in effect, the privileges of creativity (Rhie 193).

The Tibetan artist?s ability to create a unique thanka is much like the English process of creating a Shakespearian sonnet. In form, both the sonnet and the thanka painting seem incredibly limited by set traditional method, but it is through the manipulation of method and individual approach to each that truly exceptional works are created.

Religious Influence on the Creative Process

Because of the nature of transportation and presentation of most thankas, the preparation of the materials and their application was crucial. This attention was important not only for the painting?s execution, but also for its use in practice and its survival. It seems amazing that so many thankas, some roughly a thousand years old, retain the flexibility that has allowed them to be rolled and unrolled over the centuries. Investing a painting with such quality required a ?profound, if received, understanding of the properties of the materials and techniques? (Kossak 194).

Religion Imbedded in Material

Often, the material out of which religious images were made enhanced the spiritual presence of the works. Precious substances, for Tibetans, were ?concrete analogies of spiritual value (just as despised substances are synonymous with what is repellent in the world)? (Reynolds 173). Tibetans believed that quality in paints, base fabrics, and frames?among other materials?enhanced the spiritual worth of a thanka. They believed, for example, that even the cloth itself could be empowered: ?A small painting of Tara had been folded to a fraction of its size, most likely to fit into a bronze sculpture?( Kossak 194). Also, there are a few instances of red-hued fabric being woven into the cloth used for the canvas. Since the color is not seen in the actual paintings and ?colored thread was rarely used?, it can be assumed that ?it must hold some significance?perhaps it was thread from the robe of a revered monk? (Kossak 194). At the completion of a thanka painting, after the traditional rigorous and strict process, an inscription was usually placed on the back of the painting. Most often seen was ?a simple mantra, perhaps with Buddhist creeds, sometimes written in the form of a stupa? (Kossak 205). Thus, the canvas from which the artist worked, as well as the artist?s choice in materials, was as important to the religious value as concentration rituals and the actual content of any given thanka.

Religious Effect on Composition

The vast majority of thankas ?functioned as rten (literally ?supports?), that is, physical representations and embodiments of enlightened body, speech or mind? (Jackson 25). There are several types of common compositions in religious thankas: narrative, a main figure in its pure realm, repetitive depictions, and lineages. The narrative thankas may be further split into two categories, ?the succession of notable events in the life of an enlightened one or saint and the succession of events from the past lives of some great being? (Jackson 26). Thankas depicting the main figure in its spiritual realm show the main deity in a pure realm or sometimes the deity?s own specific realm. For example, ?Padmasambhava often appears on his famous copper coloured mountain (zings mdog dpal gyi ri)? (Jackson 26). Another frequently seen thanka composition is that of repetitive depictions, in which a central main figure is surrounded by many smaller identical figures. Other thankas, which depict lineages, can also be sub-divided into two categories: ?refuge trees? and ?assembly fields?. The refuge tree depicts objects or beings in which the practitioner takes refuge (skyabs su ?gro ba?i yul). The common refuges of Buddhism, which often appear in some form, are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, Dharma and Sanga and occasionally the practitioner?s own gurus. The assembly field is a group of exalted beings who were worshipped and to whom offerings were made (Jackson 26). Each thanka compositional grouping contains further restrictions and instructions set by strict religious tradition and each composition holds different meaning. There can be many variations within each compositional category, as many as can be imagined by the artist or patron.

Religious Effect on Theme

There are a wide range of subject for thankas?from Buddahs in paradise, Taras, and Bodhisattvas, to demons and teachers (Brzostoski 7). However, one of the most recurrent themes in the art of Tibet is that of the wrathful divinity. It is believed that by:

Having meditated on the description of these blood-drinking deities, while in the human world, and by having performed some worship or praise of them; or, at least, by having seen their painted likeness and their images?recognition of them will result, and liberation? (Pal 23).

Thus, the concept of liberation remains the ultimate objective. In fact, many Tibetans call their thankas, mt?on grol, which means ?liberation through sight? (Pal 23). The demonic gods are symbols of the evil forces with which one must identify himself. One may then grasp their miracle-working power and ? conquer that abysmal world whence evil germinates both for men and cosmos? (Pal 23). The idea is that ?poison removes poison?, and therefore ?wrathful divinities are required to overpower fiends and malevolent spirits? (Pal 23). Concurrently, it is understood that these deities or demons have no more ?real existence? than humans. The goal, through the imagery of deities in thankas, is to eventually understand that these apparitions are ?the reflections of one?s own thought-forms? (Pal 23).

Religious Iconography

The Tibetan iconography used in thankas is basically, by definition, a set of traditional symbolic forms that are associated with the subject or theme of a stylized work of art[4]. In Tibetan thankas, these traditional guidelines are incredibly precise because of art?s relation to religious practice. Each thanka begins with the correct establishment of vertical and horizontal lines that are incredibly important to religious tradition. Because thankas were an expression of religious ideals, their figures??the ideal bodily forms of enlightened beings??had to be perfectly oriented in relation to the central axis (Jackson 45). Correct positioning was essential since a mistake here would affect the accuracy, and thus the religious value, of the ensuing painting (Jackson 45).

Usually, to start, there were eight major lines used as a grid?four marking the center and four marking the boarders. To sketch figures in a thanka the painter needed an exact knowledge of the measurements and proportions (thig tshad) of each deity as established by Buddhist iconometry and artistic practice (Jackson 45). Tibetan Buddhism has ?literally hundreds of different deities, and no master painter could know all their proportions, configurations and characteristics? (Jackson 45). Despite the numbers, the artist had to be familiar with the main iconometric classes and he had to be able to apply this knowledge correctly and precisely to the individual deities that he painted. The six main proportional classes the artist had to know and know well consisted of Buddhas (standing and seated), peaceful bodhisattvas (standing and seated), goddesses (standing and seated), tall wrathful beings, short wrathful beings, and humans (Jackson 50-53). In addition, the sketching sequence as well as the paints, the brushstroke technique, the gradations and even the outlining followed strict iconometric tradition as well (Jackson 142).

Religious Function

?As in India, so in Tibet, art, like religion, was a part of one?s Dharma, one of the many elements that uphold life. If life is a constant search for truth, then beauty, which is a part of that truth, cannot be divorced from life? (Pal 39).

Religious Decoration

Because thankas embodied sacred presence, they possessed for Tibetans the ability to ?grant blessings? (chinlap) (Reynolds 173). These blessings were dispersed in a variety of ways:

Physically, it occurs in the contact between the devotee?s body (usually at the top of the head) and the image. The meetings of bodies is seen as a concrete instantiation of a shared moment in time and space, an intersection of history. There is also the idea that physical contact transmits a spiritual value (Reynolds 173).

However, the image didn?t only physically grant blessings to a person, but it also imparted an ?auspicious cast to its environment?. The presence of a holy image made its immediate surroundings a sacred space (Reynolds 173). On the large scale, the presence of a particularly holy image could make its site the focus of pilgrimages or was thought to affect the welfare of an entire town. On a smaller scale, the installation of Buddhist art in a room or building was thought to affect that place in a similarly positive manner. The effect was that the entire house becomes the abode of the deity (Reynolds 174).

Often, thankas were requested for use on a daily basis?usually because of sickness or troubles, a death in the family, or the need for an image in connection with a particular religious practice (Jackson 9). Like other ?virtuous? deeds, the commissioning of religious art was ?believed to earn merit, the only thing that in the Buddhist view could give rise to future benefits and happiness? (Jackson 9). The blessings were believed to effect each situation in a different manner. The positive force could be directed to improve a troubled situation or produce a desired good. Thankas painted after a death could also help create the conditions necessary for assisting the deceased to have a happy rebirth. Finally, thankas were also created for use in personal religious practice (Jackson 9). The creation of a thanka was not only a meritorious act in itself, but it also made possible further religious activities in relation to the sacred image (Jackson 9-10).

Religious Meditation

Tibetan thanka paintings are often used in the Buddhist religion for performing visualization meditation (sadhana). This is partly because:

?Tibetan Buddhist aesthetics of form, color and design are based in enlightenment?the shape of the Buddha?s body is the act of Buddha-hood. The image, partaking in and enacting the proportions, colors and attitudes of an aspect of nirvana, becomes an instantiation of that aspect itself? (Reynolds 171).

The awareness of Buddha?s attributes is thought to remind, or put the viewer in mind, of his or her own ?inherent enlightenment?. Thus is the image always ?more than a substitute for the presence of the Buddha or deity it radiates its own presence, which for the religious perceiver is the same as that of the Buddha? (Reynolds 171). The major concept is that the practitioner is not ultimately different from the Buddha. It is only through ?deluded thinking that such a duality is conceived? (Reynolds 171). Visualization is seen as a technique to reinvoke the presence of the ?actual? Buddha in the practitioner?s own body and experience.

In this sense, the practitioner?s body is analogous to the material stature or painting: it becomes a support, or receptacle, for embodiment in which the living experience of enlightenment is activated. Thus does the monk or lay aspirant imagine that he or she has become the Buddha?physically, verbally, mentally. Moreover, the entire world is visualized as being the Pure Land, the realm of the Buddha, and all of its contents as expressions of that Buddha (Reynolds 171).

When the practitioner of sadhana sees an image of the Buddha in the real world, it serves specifically as a reminder of one?s endeavor to identify the everyday world with that of Buddha. For this practice, the painting or statue serves as a model and aid in the development of the ability to visualize. Gazing at the image is recommended as a way of improving the clarity of the mental image produced during the meditation period (Reynolds 172).

Religious Ritual

In Tibet, thanka paintings were not considered complete until they were consecrated. Once empowered, these paintings enabled the practitioner to have access to a deity for purposes of worship and communication (Kossak 18). Although the sacred presence of a Buddhist image was already attained by the fulfillment of iconographic requirements, the deity?s presence was further invoked in a assortment of ritual settings (Reynolds 172). This began with the very first ritual involving the image, the consecration ceremony, which was performed immediately after its construction. The image was readied for religious use by a lama, who imagined and projected the spirit of the actual Buddha/deity onto the work of art (Reynolds 172). A symbol of this invocation was the inscription of the ?mantirc symbols Om ah hum on the backs of paintings, just at the spots where the corresponding psychic centers (forehead, throat, heart) (chakra) of the deities depicted on the other side occurred? (Reynolds 172).

The spirit of the painting is especially important for future initiation ceremonies where students are officially introduced to the Buddha/deity and its sadhana. In this ceremony, ?the appropriate image, in a prominent position on the altar, is the focus of the rite? (Reynolds 172). During the initiation, the actual Buddha/deity is invited to enter the image and reside there throughout the ceremony (Reynolds 172). Often, the very history of image is ?a factor in its vivification: in what rituals the image has been employed, what monasteries have kept it, and especially what lamas have been in contact with it?. The effects of having the visualized presence of the Buddha projected onto the image are ?cumulative? (Reynolds 172).

Understanding Thanka Paintings

How to Approach Thanka Paintings

When looking at thanka paintings and searching for its religious content from outside the mindset of a Tibetan, it is important to attempt let go of all cluttering thoughts and approach the work while in a state of rigpa[5].

With these works, restrain the hindering senses and shake them in the wind, the air. In the approach to these works, conceive of self as earth, form, color, light, air, sound in ether, thought and intellect in all creatures. Then cast these off. Act as the sum of all consciousness (Brzostoski 9). Only by facing the work with a mind that fully senses the interconnectedness of all life and that is empty of self-grasping emotion will one be able to completely relate to the work. Every interaction with a given piece is different, and even after multiple viewings, constantly changes.

Interactions Between the Audience and Thanka Painting

There are a number of visual ?events? that occur when viewing Tibetan thanka paintings. The first element is:

Line whose basic nature is all encompassing and fluid. It gives form to things and usually is that element first fixed in the work by the artist. Its fluidity relates to a concept of the constant flux of the world. Its encompassing relates to that which contains all colors and form in a temporary state? (Brzostoski 8). This state changes in the work as a person watches it. This happens partially from the use of ?double images?, but is also an effect of the colors on the viewer?s eyes. The harshness in color grows softer after a length of time involved in observation (Brzostoski 8). The result is that as viewers watch the work, ?new? images appear: ?Edges demand attention and melt from one form into another. The painting does not stay still, though nothing ostensibly changes? (Brzostoski 8). This is achieved when the viewers eye wanders, but with direction (Brzostoski 8). Another element is the ability to:

Have the observer turn things inside out in his participation with this painting. That lowest form of rock is so hemmed in by clouds that for a moment it is difficult to discern whether it is concave or convex. First, it is a mountain, bulging out. Then. As eyes take in other available painted clues, it is a grotto with a waterfall falling through it. It pulses in and out, moving constantly and changing through the physical devices of the artist. Transfer attention to the Bodhisattva?s hands or face, and realize what is there as well. Become aware of the reality and a method for attaining it.

It is by studying the face and thanka painting that a greater understanding can be reached of what is meant by ?the oriental reference to ?void??. It is described as ?an ?everythingness?. It is not a ?nothingness??( Brzostoski 8-9). This is one of the fundamental principals in Tibetan Buddhism.

Concluding Thoughts

Tibetan thanka paintings, and all Tibetan art, are unique in that their entire purpose and creation revolves around the Buddhist religion. The artist is rigorously trained; he then creates?according to strict iconographic and traditional guidelines?a work of art with the intent of spiritually enlightening his fellow man. Tibetan thankas alter the way the Tibetan viewer thinks about his personal spiritual enlightenment. Tibetan artists create the majority of art for the purpose of worship and instruction. Tibetan art is meant to be used.

Its aesthetic factors are only a part of its make-up, although important and operative. They function for definite reasons far removed from anything that is inaccessible to understanding. Each object has a definite application?Being genuine, they are a source of power and as tools of power these paintings are unique. They are yantras (mental machines) that operate on the matter of consciousness and its flow. They work as transformers of energies through us?They are primarily elements for the manipulations of reality (Brzostoski 1).

Religion is so irrevocably intertwined with Tibetan art that it is not absurd to suggest that one could not exist without the other. However, Tibetan art is not alienating in obvious religious connection. It appeals to and can be used by people from all nations and backgrounds. Even as a non-Buddhist American, I can still appreciate the fundamental ideas presented by Tibetan art?those of compassion, personal improvement, and understanding oneself in relation to all mankind.

?Let these works suck in your senses and blow the dust from their mirrors. It will be like death and birth. The world will be strange and unbelievably understandable.

This is where this art takes us?

Tibetan Thanka Paintings 7.4 of 10 on the basis of 1148 Review.