the sphere of vision

the art of thangka midwifery in Vajrayana

by Khandro Déchen

A question arises immediately, as to whether a thangka painter is an artist, a craftsperson, or a technician in the field of word-to-image translation. This needs some explanation.

Artists are creative people – people with ideas they wish to express; and maybe messages they wish to convey. A thangka painter however, is a facilitator or a midwife rather than an artist in the usual sense of the word. The child delivered by a midwife is not the midwife’s own child. She has not created the child – she has simply helped a woman to give birth; and when the child is born, her work is completed. The midwife cannot be complimented on the beauty of the child – her work contributes nothing to the child’s appearance. The appearance of the child is down to the parents’ genetic ancestry and the child’s previous re-birth. The midwife has no special relationship with the child once it is born. The child’s relationship is with the parents and specifically the mother – and the same applies to the midwife. It is the parents who name the child – not the midwife.

The parents of a thangka are always emptiness and form – wisdom and method. So the thangka painter is a visionary midwife. The mother of vision is creative space, so the thangka painter must be aligned with space and the thangka painted from the perspective of space rather than according to limited personal ideas. So I am a visionary midwife rather than an artist.

It is important to say that I had no background in any of the visual arts before I began my training as a thangka painter. That was considered a distinct advantage. My degree was in nursing, and that was my profession before I married Ngak’chang Rinpoche. Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who trained as an illustrator, told me that he had tried to teach various people to paint thangkas in the past, and found that the creative impulse was the biggest obstacle for people. The will toward ‘self-expression’ is a handicap when it comes to painting thangkas, and so I have been fortunate in having no interest in expressing myself. My motivation in wanting to paint thangkas was founded on the fact that the lineage of which Ngak’chang Rinpoche and I are the current Mind Lineage Holders desperately needed a thangka painter – and one who could train other painters. We needed someone who lived sufficiently close to Ngak’chang Rinpoche to receive daily instruction. As Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s wife, it occurred to me that I was well placed to learn.

It was a matter of urgent enthusiasm for me that the visionary practices of the Aro gTér lineage were preserved. Preservation with regard to the Aro gTér, actually means that they have to be brought into being. No painted images have survived from the Aro gTér lineage in Tibet. The Chinese invasion terminated this relatively young Vajrayana tradition before it was disseminated beyond the close confines of the encampment where the female visionary Khyungchen Aro Lingma taught. The body of visions which it is now my responsibility to depict, comes from Aro Lingma (1886 – 1923), and although we have written descriptions of each of the hundred and eleven visionary forms, only a small number of images exist at the moment. I have a life of work ahead of me. I love my work, and so it is not a burden – simply a wonderfully exciting responsibility. The visionary imagery of the Aro gTér, like many such Nyingma gTérmas, is often exceptional in certain ways – and so, although I can use many of the references from other systems of Vajrayana, they do not cover every aspect of the Aro gTér. Because the Aro gTér has some highly particular forms, we have collected a wealth of references with regard to thangkas and have an extensive reference library of books on Tibetan art, as well as many original Tibetan examples from the various Nyingma lineages – but these still leave a great deal of re-structuring in order to produce some of the forms which are unique to the Aro gTér.

With regard to the Lineage Lamas in particular, we have difficulties due to the paucity of female examples. Male figures predominate in the available references and so the presentation of female Lamas has been an absorbing challenge – particularly in terms of a stocky middle aged woman such as Khandro Shardröl Rinchen Wangmo. To portray middle aged strength and beauty in a woman required many days of sitting and staring at small variations of line within a face that refused to emerge as anything short of ludicrous. It is impossible to describe how suddenly, with one movement of the pencil, she simply became Khandro Shardröl Rinchen Wangmo – seemingly without effort.

As a thangka painter I am similar in some respects to an architectural draughtsman who is preparing the counterpart of the written description of a building. This is what I mean by my being a technician in the field of word-to-image translation. A thangka is a translation from vision – a method of guiding a Vajrayana practitioner in terms of being able to experience themselves in non-dual form. The method of Vajrayana is one of transformation through wearing the body of visions. What is meant by this, is that practitioners let go of their ordinary sense of themselves in order to experience themselves as yidams. A yidam is an anthropomorphic symbol of the non-dual state – that is to say, a being sometimes quite loosely based on the human form. The appearance of such a being has the power to transform the nature of our dualistic bewilderment.

Let me be more specific. Anyone who realises non-duality can lend their appearance as a means of transformation – Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel the Tantric Buddhas, for example, have lent their many appearances as methods of practice. If we wish to experience our own beginningless non-dual nature we can do so through experiencing ourselves as Padmasambhava or Yeshé Tsogyel. If we are able to accomplish this totally, we can discover that what we actually are is identical to Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel. That is not to say that we come to look like them – Vajrayana is not concerned with cloning or stamping out individuality through identification with archetypes. Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel, as yidams, are not archetypes. When non-duality is realised through them we become what we actually are. Our own confused individuality becomes non-dual individuality, and the compassionate nature of this realisation can make itself available to others – through the method of what we display as non-dual beings.

According to Vajrayana we are symbols of ourselves. We are all beginninglessly non-dual beings, but—because we do not recognise ourselves as such—we exist as ‘symbols of our non-dual being’. A symbol is not ‘the real thing’ – it points to the real thing. Our neuroses are distortions of our non-dual state, and as such contain the energy of the non-dual state. Because our neuroses are linked with the non-dual state – through their energy, our neuroses can be transformed. The method of yidam is an extremely powerful method of accomplishing that recognition. Yidams point to what we are – through making available non-dual personality which communicates with the texture of our dualistic neuroses. The more we practise the yidam the more the disparity between our confused experience and the non-dual nature of the yidam provides the friction which burns through the illusion of duality.

If we practice one of the many yidams and gain realisation thereby – we could provide yidam forms ourselves, which could then be practised by others. Naturally we would necessarily have to be utterly non-dual beings to provide such yidam forms on the basis of our individual appearances – but the possibility is there. This for me is what makes thangka painting such a vivid responsibility. This is why ‘self-expression’ is an obstacle. I am not attempting to say anything or to be creative – I am simply attempting to be as accurate as possible in terms of portraying the visionary methods as described in the teachings of Aro Lingma. Accuracy and complete faithfulness in presenting the yidam is an avowed duty, because people rely upon the images I paint to inspire them in practice. If my painting seeks to promote my own subjectivity, I actually betray the trust of those who incorporate these images as the most important aspects of their lives.

I received my training from my husband Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who in turn received his training in India and Nepal in the 1970s. He now, no longer paints, and has not painted since 1975 – due to his teaching schedule, and because it is necessary for him to write. Ngak’chang Rinpoche never considered himself to be a good painter – but he has been an inspiring teacher for me. He feels that people need to apply themselves in the direction where they have the most talent and he feels that it is better for him to write and for me to paint. Ngak’chang Rinpoche still works with me quite closely on new images – especially where there is no clear iconographic reference. I say ‘works with me’ rather than ‘instructs me’ or ‘guides me’ – because it is something of a mutual process which is mainly intuitive and non-directive on either of our parts. This is especially the case when I am trying to draw a face. It is more a case of looking for a face through the medium of moving a pencil. I know when I have found the face when it stops looking like a created face. A created face has a mouth, eyes and a nose which give the impression of having been assigned their places. The real face has its own personality and I am aware that something has happened. Ngak’chang Rinpoche and I always known when the face is there – we have never disagreed. This has been important when portraying the lineage Lamas of the Aro gTér. The lineage Lamas, some of whom are also yidam forms, are crucial to developing a sense of history among our students. Accounts of 19th and 20th Century yogis and yoginis are all very well, but most students find them a little abstract until a picture emerges. They then become flesh and blood people – they become relatives. It is as if one were looking at photographs of one’s grandparents. That is my aim – to bring the tradition alive for people, but not to impose myself on the images.

The interesting thing about the lack of self-expression in thangka painting, is that one cannot actually help expressing oneself. I now teach thangka painting to a small group of our female students, and we have a painting retreat once a year. It is interesting to see how each painter is distinct in their style, even though they are trying not to develop a style which is distinct from the one which is characteristic of the Aro gTér lineage in the west. It may be noticed that the thangkas I paint and that our students paint are more vivid in terms of colour than the traditional Tibetan images. Our style has emerged as a response to the visionary material itself, and so the Aro gTér style is characterised by the dominance of the five elemental colours. A thangka is intended to depict the pure light display of the elements: earth (yellow), water (white), fire (red), air (green), and space (blue) – and so these colours should be vivid. There are various schools or traditions of thangka painting and they all differ according to certain considerations. Some people have thought that my style represents a westernisation – but this is a misunderstanding of the reasoning behind the greater vividness and simplicity of the images. In one sense the ideal thangka could be a holographic light image suspended in space, so what I attempt in my painting is to portray the translucency of the visionary dimension as faithfully as I can.

This brings me to meditation. Thangka painting is not traditionally a meditative art. Most artists were simply crafts people rather than spiritual practitioners – although some Lamas have been master painters. From the perspective of the Dzogchen teachings however – any activity can be integrated into the meditative state. This is the approach which we adopt when teaching our students – because, it is hard not to adopt this approach if one wishes to be faithful to the dimension of vision.

In order to be invisible as a painter I need to fail to observe myself painting. Painting simply needs to happen. There is concentration – but the concentration cannot be forced. I must be relaxed as well – but not sloppy or absent minded. When concentration and relaxation are undivided – the lines flow. When one becomes self-conscious the drawing wades through mud.

It is important for me to be self-critical – or simply critical, but not in the style of a cat watching a mouse. It is simply a critical situation. The sense of accurate observation I try to achieve is one which could be described as spacious and honest. I need to work quite hard to make progress, especially with a new drawing, but I cannot allow myself to become impatient or frustrated. Like a midwife, I need to allow the image to be born, and sometimes – especially with the initial line drawing, that can take a long time. There is no guarantee—when the paper goes into labour—when the point of birth will occur. I have the written description of the yidam or the lineage Lama, and I have either more or fewer references which guide the general form which will emerge – just as a midwife knows the stages of labour. When working from a visionary source however, this information is half of the equation – the form aspect. There is then emptiness aspect for which there is no description. One might call that creativity of course – but not if one considerers oneself to be a visionary midwife.

Maybe there is no difference in terms of pure creativity between a thangka painter and an artist – apart from how one sees oneself and one’s engagement. If I were to polish a piece of copper until I could see my face in it – it would be a perfect work of polishing, but seeing my own face in its mirror surface would say nothing about the quality of reflection. Each individual would see a different face. Everyone who practises using a thangka which I have painted as a support for their meditation, could experience non-duality. The reflective surface that is the yidam is not my creation – I merely polished that mirror. To polish a mirror or to paint a thangka, the most important consideration is that one avoids distortion, in order that whoever gazes into the mirror sees their non-dual nature – face to face.