Nepalese painter, Tashi Gurung and Tibetan Thangkas
In this exhibit, we'll present the Tibetan Art of Thangkas and Mandalas by the Nepalese master thangka artist, Tashi Gurung.
See Tashi's work in person starting at our opening reception on Saturday, May 13th.
Mustang is a small district in Nepal located right on the border with Chinese Tibet.
It wasn't until 1950 that the first European set foot in Mustang, a forbidden Tibetan kingdom in the northwest of Nepal. Mustang was officially closed to foreigners until 1992.
As one of the most isolated regions in the world, Tibetan culture has been preserved in the region. The untouched Mustang became even more important after the 1951 Chinese occupation of Tibet, and prosecution of the Buddhists there.
Until very recently, the only way to reach Mustang was on horseback, after a four-day journey. In 2020, China completed a road through Mustang as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Mustang's last king passed away in 2016.
The world of Mustang might never be the same.
Tashi at work
In Lo Manthang, I met Tashi Gurung, a local Thangka and Mandala artist.
In 1999, Tashi and several other artists began restoring 500-year-old Buddhist murals in local gompas (monasteries). Tashi helped to restore Jampa, Thupchen, Tsarang, and other Buddhist gompas, as documented in the NOVA PBS documentary "Lost Treasures of Tibet".
Tashi then went on several UNESCO-sponsored trips to Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh (in India), Tibet, and Kham (in China) to take part in the restoration of other Buddhist monasteries.
Inspired by this experience, Tashi traveled to Kathmandu and for five years studied the ancient painting and iconography from Master Thangka Painter Mukti Singh Thapa.
Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, or rice paper usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. The thangka form developed alongside the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, which are or were mostly in monasteries in the Himalayas.
A mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing the mind and attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. A mandala generally represents the spiritual journey through several layers, starting from the outside to the inner core.
Tashi Gurung starts off the thangka painting by preparing the cotton canvas. First, the canvas is carefully stretched on the wooden stretcher frame. Then, the canvas is sized with a solution of Yak hide glue to stiffen it. After it dries, a layer of gesso (white clay mixed with the skin glue) is applied and left to dry in the sun. Finally, Tashi polishes the surface with a polishing stone to make a clean, smooth surface ready for painting.
Mineral Pigments used for Thangka
For traditional Mustang Thangkas, Tashi uses local mineral pigments sourced from semiprecious stones. These are ground to powder for three months, and then mixed with Yak-skin glue and water. 24-carat gold is used in some Thangkas as well.
WHEEL OF LIFE (BHAVACAKRA)
This Thangka describes Buddhist philosophy and introduces the notion of reincarnation (the endless cycle of birth, death, and re-birth). It is a symbolic representation of saṃsāra (or cyclic existence).
This painting is often found at the entrances of monasteries. It is believed to have been used by wandering monks to propagate Buddhism in its early years.
The inner circle depicts the three poisons: Anger (serpent), Greed (rooster), and Ignorance (pig).
The middle circle represents the six states of existence: (good) Gods, Demigods, and Humans; (evil) Ghosts, Hell and Animals.
The fierce figure holding the wheel of life represents Yama, the god of death.
The Buddha in the top right corner, pointing to the white circle, indicates that liberation from Samsara is possible.
The Goddess Tara, a buddha of compassion, is in the top left corner. Both of them are in Nirvana, where there's no suffering.
A mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing the mind and attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.
The Mandala of Kalachakra is visualized in the practitioner's mind as a three-dimensional palace but it also exists in the physical world. A temple situated in Lhasa is a perfect three dimensional reproduction of the painting. The temple itself contains 722 Deities, while at its center, atop a golden lotus throne, sits a single Buddha: Kalachakra.
It is a five-level structure, that when painted could be considered the top (or bird's eye) view of the structure, with each detail of the painting symbolizing a particular element of the Tantra. As our spiritual journeys grows, we become more and more familiar with the Kalachakra Tantra.
Life of Buddha
The Life of Buddha (or the Story of Buddha) thangka painting depicts key episodes in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Gautama Buddha. These major events are traditionally called the "Twelve Great Dees of the Buddha's Life":
- Descending from Tushita Heaven
- Entering into his mother's womb
- Birth in the garden of Lumbini
- Training in the sciences
- Achievement in sports competition
- Enjoying the palace and marriage
- Renouncing the life of a prince
- Practicing austerity for six years, then renouncing that
- Obtaining victory over the Maras
- Enlightenment under the bodhi tree
- Turning the wheel of dharma
- And passing into Parinirvana
THE PATH TO NIRVANA
This Thangka is also known as the "Path to Enlightenment" or "Way to Heaven".
This mnemonic diagram depicts the nine progressive stages of mental development, which are obtained through the six powers: of study, contemplation, memory, comprehension, diligence, and perfection.
The elephant represents the mind, and its dark color represents mental dullness. The monkey represents distraction or mental agitation, and its brown color represents scattering.
The black elephant follows the path of heaven and at the end of the path, it becomes a white elephant.
At the end of the path concentration is attained, and the ‘purified elephant’ of the mind is now completely submissive.
In this Mandala, the inscriptions inside are a mantra (a repeated prayer) in Tibetan script.
The prayer is pronounced: "Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ" (Hail the Jewel in the Lotus). The mantra is seen as the condensed form of all Buddhist teachings.
In Tibetan Buddhism, this is the most ubiquitous mantra and the most popular form of religious practice, performed by laypersons and monks alike. It is also an ever-present feature of the landscape - commonly carved onto rocks known as mani stones, painted into the sides of hills, or written on prayer flags and prayer wheels.
MANTRA MANDALA OM WITH EIGHT AUSPICIOUS SYMBOLS
These eight symbols appear often in Tibetan religious art. They are particularly prevalent in sand (ephemeral) mandalas and are believed to be the symbolic representation of the transient universe.
The Precious Parasol: gives protection from all evil.
The White Conch Shell: represents the fame of the Buddha’s teachings that spread in all directions, like the sound of the conch shell.
The Two Golden Fish: symbolize being saved from the ocean of earthly life and suffering.
The Knot of Eternity: represents the intertwining of wisdom and compassion, the perfection of knowledge.
The Vase of Great Treasures: a traditional symbol of good fortune representing the perfect nature of the dharma, longevity, and prosperity.
The Victory Banner: signifies the victory of the enlightened teachings, knowledge over ignorance, overcoming all hindrances, and the attainment of happiness.
The Lotus Flower: one of Buddhism’s most significant symbols. It is a symbol of enlightenment and mental purity. The lotus has its roots in mud, but blossoms into a beautiful flower. Similarly, though an individual may be impure, there is the potential to gain enlightenment and perfection.
The Eight Spoked Wheel: known as the Wheel of Dharma, this represents the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddhadharma: the wheel that leads to perfection.
The Thousand-Buddha motif is a recurrent theme in the Buddhist art of Central Asia and China. The motif depicts a multitude of buddhas arranged in a grid fashion, all seated in meditation on a lotus pedestal, and its popularity increased predominantly during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) in northern China.
Thousand Buddha is portrayed meditating in the middle of the canvas, holding an alms bowl in his left hand and his right palm touching the floor in the bhumisparsha mudra. This gesture symbolizes Buddha's victory out over evil Mara, which he accomplished by praying to and summoning the soil goddess Bhudevi. The multiplication of Buddhas in the painting's background symbolizes the universal nature of enlightenment.
Ultimately, The Thousand-Buddha motif manifests a key teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, that is: all sentient beings equally have buddha-nature and can attain enlightenment.