Excerpts of an interview with Charlotte Davis by Paul Ferguson
How did you come to study thangka painting?
I decided to study thangka painting when I was coming to the end of my studies at art school in Australia. I didn’t feel so attracted to the contemporary art world, dominated at the school I went to by Post-Modern theory and wanted to study thangka painting so that I could combine my interest in Buddhism with my interest in art. I asked one of my teachers whether he knew of anywhere I could study and he told me about the Tsering Art School, which had just started. I joined the school in April 1998 and ended up staying for the next 6 ½ years, completing the training and also working for the school.
How did your appreciation/attraction grow for thangkas once you decided to make the switch?
Although I didn’t initially have a great attraction for thangka painting as a style, after arriving at the school and becoming familiar with the Karma Gadri style, I have really grown to love and admire this tradition. I find the colours and spacious landscapes very appealing. I also find it somewhat more naturalistic than some of the Tibetan traditions, especially in the landscape, in that softer Chinese-influenced style very beautiful and uplifting. In terms of the process, I also really loved the feeling of just being a vessel for the art form, and going through a process that was probably more in line with pre-modern European art and the apprentice model. I never had any feeling that I was being limited in my creativity either. There are still many choices that are made by the artist and different artists have different styles, without in any way necessarily breaking the rules of the tradition. My main inspiration was our teacher, Konchog Lhadrepa, not just in his obvious genius as an artist, but his personal qualities of warmth, wisdom and humour as well as depth of devotion, humility and hard work, showing his strength and example as a person and practitioner.
It sounds like you got in on the ground floor for Tsering Art school when it was just opening. Could you tell me a bit about how those early days of the school were for you?
The school had already been running for two years while the art school building was being built. I just very quickly felt at home. It was quite scary of course to leave all that was familiar to me, and there were some big learning curves in terms the cultural differences, the food and so on. But I was very touched by people’s kindness and the aspects of softness and simplicity of the culture and people (combined with a lot of toughness!). Pretty soon Konchog asked me to help with some of the administrative work for the school, especially where English was needed. I was really delighted to be able to be able to practise some “karma yoga” in this way. I think having something outside of studies to occupy myself with in this way also helped to feel at home.
In terms of the discipline of study, certainly six hours sitting cross-legged with a slate or board on your lap is pretty painful for the knees! But it was good training for sitting practice. The daily schedule is rigorous, but I got used to it and found it a good support. So I really just became immersed in life at the school and then there was the Boudhanath Stupa just a few minutes away and being able to observe and slowly become a part of the life of the monastery and school. Being woken up in the morning by the chanting of the small monks below the school, the endless bells, for meals and classes. The life was tough, spare, and full of heart.
Do you still use the same materials in which you were trained or have you experimented more? What have you discovered through either method? I know it might be hard to find certain materials outside Nepal such as the gold.
I experimented a bit with the last thangka I did, using acrylic on canvas, although we also experimented quite a lot at the art school anyway. The school has developed a method of painting with acrylic paints that match the traditional colours and texture very authentically. Practically speaking it being more hard-wearing and durable in humid environments and easier to apply. Konchog’s approach is not particularly ‘precious’, when it comes to the materials needing to be of stone pigments etc, which I like in the sense of this being a living tradition and not feeling the need to do everything exactly as it was in the past, for it to be considered ‘authentic’. This is an issue for many indigenous cultures, for their artforms to still be accepted outside of the domain of the museums as a living tradition that can adapt to the times in terms of materials available.
From my understanding, the authenticity of the art lies in the training and the motivation. At Tsering Art School we learn Karma Gadri tradition, so important to really learn the style and methods of that tradition and to adhere by it, but once a student graduates, it comes down to the individual artist’s interest and nowadays many artists want to create their own style. As long as the proportions and iconography are correct and the inner understanding of the purpose and meaning of the art is there, it is still authentic in that sense. But the understanding of what each tradition consists of is eroding. Even though my own knowledge is still pretty limited, I do know enough now to see that many times, even on art websites and books, thangkas are incorrectly designated “Karma Gadri” or “Menri” etc. I was fortunate to have had time with Konchog where he pointed out many differences and it made me appreciate that it would be very difficult for art scholars to be able to make those distinctions. Konchog could say something like: “Oh this is a thangka painted in the Karma Gadri tradition, but by a Menri artist”. Or “this is Karma Gadri, but the clouds are Menri!
Another thing I think sometimes misunderstood is that the quality of the work is really defined mostly by the quality of the drawing, much more than the technical perfection of the colour-work. This is because, along with the consecration once the thangka is complete, the blessing of the work comes through the correct proportions, as outlined in the tantras. This is also really the basis of the aesthetic beauty of the work as well.
You are also a student of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. How do find your thangka practice relates to your other Buddhist practices under this lama?
It does relate to the Buddhist trainings we receive in basic ways as a lot of patience, discipline, and diligence is required to really progress in this form (having said that, I don’t claim to be an adept myself as, lacking in these qualities, I keep allowing myself to be distracted by other activities!). In fact it can be shown to be a practice of all six paramitas. Of course, it is also a practice of shamata meditation, as any practice of concentration could be said to be, but in this case the object of concentration is a dharma image so there is a direct relationship there with the practice of meditative concentration.
Then, as we are usually depicting deities and Buddhas for visualisation practice, it does relate directly to sadhana practice. In the teachings we receive from the manual written by the Principle Konchog Lhadrepa, the direct relationship between thangka painting and the practice of kyerim or development stage and dzogrim, completion stage, is explained, I think this is a unique teaching, in the sense that it has not previously been written down and explained so clearly. I have been attempting to write down these instructions in English for the non-Tibetan students, to be published later this year. I think this will be very helpful for people practising thangka painting. It also includes a special sadhana for artists to use during the process of their painting, which was written by a great master from the Drikung Kagyu tradition. So our art practice relates directly to the sadhana practice and especially the practice of visualisation.
Regarding your question about relating it more directly to my practice under my specific gurus, is that I can make an offering to my teacher of a work of art, which is something that has felt very meaningful for me as a practice of guru devotion. I feel that the image that my teachers choose to have me paint often relates in subtle ways to confirming something specific about my own path and connections as well, but that is quite personal, so I’d rather not be more specific about that. The other thing of course, is that I can paint an image of whatever deity I am practising and been empowered for under that teacher, so it does relate very much to our own practice under the guidance of our lamas.
What do you hope to see develop in the preservation of this art-form in regards to both its creation as well as its use within Buddhist communities?
I think there is a lot that is happening to preserve the art form as a living tradition. There are western Buddhists like ourselves training in this artform and in the communities from which these traditions come from. I think that schools like Tsering Art School play an important role in the sense that its main focus is not just to preserve the artistic tradition but to convey it from the context of Buddhist practice. I have also heard that the Karma Gadri tradition is again flourishing in Tibet. In terms of its use in Buddhist communities, many of our graduates from the local Buddhist communities have gone on to paint temples for monasteries and individuals. I think the main thing is that there are teachers who are very experienced and well trained who are able to pass this on authentically to others.
One thing I would like to see is greater education in the West amongst Buddhist practitioners in the appreciation of the importance of the sacred Buddhist arts for the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism. The commissioning of thangkas is an accumulation of merit and of course making offerings to these images and statues, once consecrated is also a great accumulation of merit. The study of the sacred arts is actually one of the five disciplines of a bodhisattva, so traditionally it has been greatly appreciated and in fact it could be said that the continuation of this tradition is intrinsically entwined with the continuation of the dharma itself, as these images are used as a support for practice and to depict the lineages of practice and so on.
It seems to me that the digital age could threaten this appreciation somewhat. If people only wish to save money by getting reproductions, eventually the role of the artist will lack support and there will be fewer artists with the knowledge and skills to keep this going. Thankfully in the East at least there is still enough appreciation of the role of the sacred arts to keep the traditions going.
The Tsering Art School and Rabsel Thangka Studio
Artists working at this studio are all authentically trained graduates from the six year painting course at Shechen Monastery’s Tsering Art School in Nepal
Thangkas are used by Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners to assist the meditator in clearly visualising their meditation deity. Commissioning a thangka painting is also regarded as a way of generating spiritual merit.
The Tsering Art School, housed in the grounds of Shechen Monastery in Nepal, is part of the Dilgo Khyentse Fellowship. It was established by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche in 1996 in response to the urgent need for young artists to be able to receive a complete and thorough training in a pure and authentic lineage of thangka painting. At this time he requested Konchog Lhadrepa to teach. Konchog is a humble and devoted practitioner and master thangka painter who received training under the guidance of a master thangka painter from Rumtek, at the request of his guru Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The artists have been trained under the expert guidance of Konchog Lhadrepa and his senior disciples in a lineage of painting from eastern Tibet called Karma Gadri, which is famous its spacious landscapes and transparent hues. The training has been given within the proper context of Buddhist practice.
The Rabsel Thangka Studio was initially formed for some of the graduate students to fulfill a large thangka painting project for Shechen Monastery, with generous sponsorship from the Rubin Foundation from the USA. The studio is now broadening its scope, with more graduate artists joining to help fulfill commissions from around the world.
The school also makes an annual art calendar with Western and Tibetan dates, quality Shechen Incense products, traditional ritual tailored items and embroidered and appliqué thangkas as well as wooden tormas.