King Trisong Detsen
VIIth Karmapa Chodrak Gyatso
VIIIth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje
A short biograph of Chogyam Trungpa
Background and History

The art of Tibet is entirely based on the spirituality of Buddhism. The pure native Tibetan art of the Pon (Tt.: bon)* tradition was lost with the coming of Buddhism to Tibet from India in the ninth century. The main source of the Tibetan art that has flourished since then is the iconographical art of India with strong influences from China and Persia.

One of the first examples of Buddhist art in Tibet was produced in the time of King Songtsen Gampo (Tt.: srong btsan agam po, reigned 608-649 A.D.), well before Buddhism was generally known in the country. Songtsen Gampo married Nepalese and Chinese princesses, both Buddhists. They each brought their family shrines with them to Lhasa, the seat of the monarchy, and the king built temples there to house them. These first landmarks of Buddhist art survive until the present day. It was King Trisong Detsen (Tt.: khri srong lde btsan), the great-grandson of Songtsen Gampo, who invited to Tibet Padmasambhava (better known as Guru Rinpoche, “precious guru”) and Santaraksita, the great spiritual masters who converted the Tibetan people, learned and ordinary, and established Buddhism as the national religion. These two also, with King Trisong Detsen , founded Samye (Tt.: bsam yas) monastery, Tibet’s first, which was to become the fundamental monument of Buddhism in that country.

In the process of expanding his kingdom in the direction of Persia, Trisong Detsen visited and sacked a religious establishment there at a place called Batra. From there he brought back Persian art and ritual objects as well as Persian master craftsmen. Along with the objects came Pehar, the guardian spirit of the temple at Batra. Pehar was tamed and converted by Guru Rinpoche and became then the guardian deity of Samye.

Chinese influence also entered Tibet during this period, especially in the form of Ch’an Buddhism, the Chinese precursor of Zen. Eighty Ch’an masters came to teach in central Tibet and attracted many Tibetan disciples. This strongly implanted the influence of Chinese Buddhist ritual and generally provided inspiration in the newly converted country.

The monasteries, which began to be built were modeled on the palaces of Tibetan royalty. Even the interior designs and seating arrangements were copied from the audience halls of Tibetan kings. Iconographical subjects were painted on the walls as frescoes and three-dimensional shrines were built and sculptured images of deities placed upon them.

Thangkas or scrollpaintings were, from the first, religious in nature. The first thangka originated in India and depicted the Wheel of Life, a sort of diagram showing the world of samsara and how to get out of it. Piligrams carried them on their backs and unrolled them in village squares along their way for use in illustrating their talks on the basic truths of Buddhism.

Thangkas developed much wider use in Tibet, a country where for a long time a large portion of the population was nomadic. In the nomadic Tibet, it was the practice of local rulers to travel about their regions setting up their princely camps in various places and holding court in great, richly appointed tents. The Tibetan religious orders adopted this pattern from them. Groups of monks moved over the country, pitching camp in the highlands in summer and in the lowlands in winter. The abbots, as they rode in caravans, went like kings, wearing high gold hats of office and surrounded by attendants carrying banners. The monks were great in numbers and carried with them everything necessary for a full-scale religious establishment. According to the Book of the Crystal Rosary, when the seventh Karmapa, Chotrag Gyamtso (Tt.: chos grags rgyamtso, 1454-1506) traveled, it required five hundred mules to carry the Kanjur (Tt.: bka; ‘gyur; S.: Tripitaka) and other religious books. He was accompanied by ten thousand monks with fifteen hundred tents. Portable shrines were brought and full ritual paraphernalia, so that what amounted to complete monasteries could be set up in the tents. Thangkas, being portable, were used instead of frescoes. This nomadic monasticism was a fundamental part of Tibetan spiritual life; one of the Tibetan words for monastery, gar, in use of this day, means “camp.”

As the traveling monasteries were offered land and forts by local kings and landowners, they hung their thangkas in the shrine rooms of the permanent buildings. Ceilings and columns were painted with decorative work. Manuscripts were illuminated. Large mandalas were painted to place under the shrines. There were also small card paintings to be used in rituals.

The word thangka comes from the Tibetan thang yig, which mean “annal” or “written record.” The ending yig, which means, “letter” and carries the sense of “written,” is replaced by the ordinary substantive ending ka. Thus the word thangka has the sense of a record.

There are three predominant schools of Tibetan thangka painting. The Kadam (Tt.: bka’ gdams), the early classical school, shows simplicity, spaciousness and basic richness. Menri (Tt.: sman ris) the later classical school originated in the fifteenth century with an artist known as Menla Tondrup (Tt.: sman bla don grub) from a family of great physicians. Its style maintains the simplicity and spaciousness with a greater emphasis on richness of detail, there being more Persian influence. New Menri (T.: Mensa; Tt.: sman gsar), a later development of the Menri School in the late seventeenth century, is quite, one mighty say, baroque and overwhelmingly colorful, perhaps intimidatingly rich. There is a great emphasis on curve at the expense of straight lines and very little open space. The third main school, the Karma Gardri (Tt.: Karma sgar bris) school was developed in the sixteenth century, mainly by the eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (Tt.: Chos kyi ‘byung gnas, 1700-1774). This style was further elaborated by the renowned master Chokyi Jungne (Tt.: chos kyi ‘byuns gnas, 1700-1774), the eighth Dai Situ (Th.: Ta’I Situ) and founder of Pepung (Tt.: dpal’ spung) monastery, at a time when there was a general renaissance in Tibetan Buddhism art, particularly in the area of rupas (sculptured images). The Karma Gardri style is clear and precise, spacious and, in places, rich. It shows marked Chinese influence, evidenced by the use of pastel colors and prominent stylized features of landscape.

The art of thangka was a family trade, passed on from father to son in a long apprenticeship. When a thangka, a fresco or the embellishment of a monastery was commissioned, the master was accompanied in the work by a group of students, including his sons. The master ad his apprentices were welcomed with a feast and there was a weekly feast for them as long as it took to complete the work. They were presented with gifts at various times, usually at the time of the feasts. They were paid in commodities, such as cattle, quantities of butter, cheese, grain, jewelry, or clothes.

The traditional support for a thangka is white linen. Silk was used on rare occasions. This cloth, the re shi (Tt.: ras gzhi, “cloth background”), is stretched on a wooden frame. It is then prepared with a base of chalk mixed with gum Arabic. The first step is a freehand charcoal sketch by the master. The charcoal is made by baking wood of tamarisk in a metal tube. The master then goes over the sketch in black ink and marks the various areas according to the colors that are to be put in by the apprentices.

Traditionally, blue is made from ground lapis lazuli, red is vermilion from cinnabar; yellow is made from sulphur, green from tailor’s greenstone. Pink is made from flower petals and, more recently, also from cosmetics imported from China or India.

To make a brush, the tip of a stick, usually tamarisk or bamboo, is dipped in glue. The artist carefully places the hairs, one by one. Best is the hair of the sable or of a small Himalayan wildcat called sa (Tt.: gsa’). Ideally, the hair should be pulled from the tail of a live animal, since thus it remains more resilient. The hairs having been placed on the stick, they are bound by a silk thread, also dipped in glue.

When the basic colors are filled in by the apprentices, the master goes over the work, shading with lighter colors derived from flowers and vegetables. Finally he retouches with gold. An apprentice burnishes the gold with a roundpointed instrument made from an agate.

Traditionally, the eyes of the deities were left for the last so they cold be painted in at a special celebration called “opening the eyes.”

When the painting is completed it is mounted on cloth. Originally there were two borders, one of red brocade, one of blue. Later yellow brocade also became acceptable and the modern style has three brocade borders, yellow, red and blue. In the center of the borders below the painting is placed a square of particularly elaborate brocade, which is known as the “door.” In some sense the brocade borders represent an edifice, which houses the world of the painting. The “door” provides an entrance into that world.

The thangkas are covered for protection with red and yellow silk veils, red and yellow being the colors used for the clothing of the sangha (community of the dharma). Two red ribbons hang over the veils. These are known as lung non (Tt.: rlung gnon), “wind holders.” These ribbons hark back to the time when thangkas were hung in tents and wind required them to be tied against the wall. The rolling sticks at the bottom of the brocade are finished with gold or silver knobs.

Occasionally thangkas were done in silk appliqué or embroidered on silk.

Sculptured images in the traditional manner are first modeled in sealing wax (T.: be; Tt.: ‘bes). Clay is molded onto a wax image and the wax melted away. The metal cast in the clay molds is usually pure copper. Very old images are found to have been cast in bell metal, a mixture of copper, silver and pewterlike alloys. Once cast, the images are gilded. Then they are often highlighted with painted colors. Ornaments are sometimes inlaid with jewels and, quite frequently, the hair, lips and eyes are touched with color. There is a special “opening of the eyes” ceremony, just as with thangkas, when the eyes are painted in. The images are hollow and after the “eye-opening” they are consecrated in a ceremony, which involves filling them with relics and mantras. Before the bottom is sealed, as the very last thing, grains of precious stones are put into the image to add a sense of basic richness. It is on account of this practice that images have frequently been broken into by those hoping to find valuable gems.

As a social phenomenon, making images was much the same as thangka painting. The art and lore were passed down in families and through apprenticeship. A sculptor and his apprentices having come to a monastery to provide it with a new treasure, were feted, given gifts and paid just as were the thangka painters.

It is widely thought that thangka painting is a form of meditation. This is not true. Though all the thangkas have religious subjects, most of the artists were and are lay people. As has been said, the art is passes down in families. It is true that a master thangka painter has knowledge of iconographical detail that might easily awe a novice monk. Naturally, also, artists have a sense of reverence for the sacredness of their work. Nevertheless, the painting of thangkas is primarily a craft rather than a religious exercise. One exception is the nyin thang (“one-day thangka”) practice in which, as part of a particular sadhana, while repeating the appropriate mantra, uninterruptedly, without sleeping, a monk paints a thangka in one twenty-four hour period.

Thangkas were painted on commission for noteworthy social occasions; for the welfare of a newly born infant, for the liberation of one just dead, at the commencement of some new project. Often artistically inclined gurus or abbots painted thangkas to glorify their lineages or convey the richness or inspiration of their tradition.

Thangkas are used as objects of adoration, but mainly as a means to refine a meditative visualization. They are displayed over shrines which are bedecked with butter lamps, incense and offerings and ritual objects of many kinds. Thangkas of the lives of saints are displayed for the celebrations of holidays associated with them. Special thangkas painted by great teachers of particular lineages are also hung for yearly ceremonies. Practitioners hang the thangkas of their yidams or gurus over the shrines in their rooms as constant reminders of their presence. Formal rooms were hung with thangkas in Tibet to receive important guests such as kings, government officials or eminent spiritual teachers. Sometimes thangkas hung in the audience halls of local rulers.

Thangkas were never bought or sold, but changes hands only as gifts.

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* Abbreviations: Tt.: Tibetan transliteration; T.: Tibetan Pronounciation; S.: Sanskrit

Essay © 1975 Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
copyright © 2003 Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation