Cafe Conversation

April 22nd, 2012

An Interview with Tara Di
By Kelly Roberts

When I was asked if I would interview Tara for the Art Issue of the Gentle Voice, I have to admit, I was deeply excited and happy. It was about time that people heard what she had to say about her art and the topic of Thangka painting. I have had the great fortune to know Tara for many years. I have watched her closely ~ developing into the absolutely stunning Thangka painter that she is today. I remember when she showed me one of her first paintings it vibrated with so much magic, presence and movement. I was so moved, speechless, tears fell. Amazing. It truly felt as if she had brought the deity to life right before my very eyes. This particular deity continued to haunt me for days and now still does years later ~ bringing so much presence into my practice. Over the years she has developed this skill to a place where even a non-dharmic person is incredibly touched by her paintings. Of course anyone who knows Tara will not be surprised to hear that she adamantly refuses to take a compliment.

When I told her that the Gentle Voice had asked if I would interview her, her immediate reaction was an adamant “NO – I am not a traditional Thangka painter. There are many others who are much better than me that they could interview.” I wasn’t going to give up. I had to assure Tara that Gentle Voice had Rinpoche’s support to do the interview and only then did she consent. Rinpoche has mentioned many times over the years how he feels she is amongst the most accomplished painters he knows.
It’s actually an amazing accomplishment to get her to speak so openly and profoundly about her art. It is a true gift to all of us. I am so happy to be able to share her in this way. We met for a “cappuccino and chocolate”, at the local “Bliss Cafe” in downtown Crestone, Colorado where we both live. It was a lively and laughing conversation most of which I have included here:


Kelly: So tell me how you first became inspired to become a Thangka painter?

Tara: When I was about 16, I decided to go on an adventure for the summer to Nepal , not yet as a Buddhist but more to have an adventure. The day I arrived was the day I found out Trungpa Rinpoche had only months to live. So – suddenly the journey switched for me. I realised I had a connection to Buddhism, and the various adolescent activities I had hoped to pursue as an unsupervised teenager in a foreign country no longer held much allure.

Tara's colours

Shortly after I arrived, someone said, “Oh you draw ! There is this Thangka painter – you should meet him.” It wasn’t something that I had even thought of. Soon after that I was introduced to this painter who lived with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. His name was Jamyang Gyatso – he was such an incredible person and Thangka painter. He lived in this tiny little shack in front of Rinpoche’s house with his mom, and sometimes his sister and brother. The second I met him and saw one of his Thangkas I knew that this was where I wanted to be. It just made me incredibly happy to sit there in this small room with him and paint. I loved being in Rinpoche’s space as well, and although I didn’t get to see him often, I was quite awestruck and enamoured. I ended up staying in Nepal for a few years.

My painting teacher’s demeanour was so much different than anything I had seen in the West. There seemed to be no ego or arrogance or anything related to the fact that he was doing these amazing things. This was so inspiring. He was naturally so utterly egoless, humble and devoted.

He would get guidance from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche on how to paint the faces and maybe other aspects of the paintings he did. He was one of Rinpoche’s personal painters and also his student. He had studied traditional Thangka painting , but what made his Thangkas so special was that the paintings felt very alive.

Coming from a Western painting background, this was so intriguing. It seemed this was not something you could capture from training. Something vast and magical shined through his paintings. That was a real teaching for me.

K: Its kind of cool to hear this because this is actually my favorite thing about your paintings. I have always felt that the special thing about your Thangkas is that you capture the essence of that particular deity. There is so much of the energy of the deity coming out and also so much movement. The deity is so alive – it’s so amazing to me how you do this. He must have been a good teacher!

K: You keep telling me again and again how you’re not a “traditional” Thangka painter. In fact you didn’t even want to do this interview because you felt you didn’t represent properly the tradition of Thangka painting. Personally, one of my favorite things about your Thangkas is that they are not traditional. When you say that about yourself what do you mean ?

T: There are many schools of Thangka painting. Normally when you study with a teacher, you take on their style and follow the specific rules of that tradition. The iconography, the sacred geometry or proportions of the deity and there are also the colours and landscape elements that vary from tradition to tradition. It might vary from teacher to teacher but it was my understanding that I should study for 7 years.

So while I still try to honour the tigse (the traditional proportions) and the iconography I have started to play with some of the landscape elements and some of the colours. I also think despite my attempts to let go of the western training, it seeps in …I have definitely reinterpreted colours a bit, because of my preferences , and also the vast array of pigments that are now available. I still use mostly mineral pigments, but I mix them and continue to experiment with that, and also with the landscape elements, animals, robes, and jewellery. I’m trying to use colours and shapes that feel natural and right but also honour the tradition, which I feel is what brings the blessings and life force to the painting.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche seems to encourage me to do this sometimes… and so I am playing with it, but its also a little scary because I don’t want to be disrespectful to what I have learned. I feel it is so important to understand the tradition fully before you divert from that tradition. Yet I am definitely still a student in this regard, I actually don’t know nearly enough to know which boundaries not to cross.

Korwa Dondruk by Tara Di

K: So tell me more about how Rinpoche (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) has been working with you with regards to your Thangka painting? You tell me that he sometimes pushes you beyond your comfort level. Can you say more about that?

T: In the beginning Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche asked me to do a painting for him, which was quite thrilling. It was the first Thangka I did for somebody. It took me forever to finish it – I don’t even remember how many years. This was about 20 years ago. I never thought I would do Thangka painting for a living. I assumed I would do it for happiness, on the side. Then, after I just had my daughter, Maya and hadn’t yet finished art school, Khyentse Rinpoche scolded me for not painting Thangkas. The initial scolding was surprising to me because I never would have had the confidence to take such a leap. Especially as I was still something of a beginner, and was nowhere close to completing the traditional length of study.

It also seemed a funny thing to do because Rinpoche has also scolded me for being impractical. I can’t really think of a more impractical livelihood, unless I measure livelihood not financially, but in terms of more long-term benefits, such as supporting sanity and reminding me of the Dharma, and maybe hopefully, if someone connects to it, supporting someone’s practice.

I feel a little funny saying he pushes me, because that’s just my version… But each painting I do pushes me, and it always feels far beyond my skills and capabilities. It is very much like jumping off a cliff . I try to get instructions from Rinpoche, but often its just a few profound words, and often ones that really challenge my preconceptions. I always want lengthy elaborate details, so I don’t ruin it! But definitely his words have influenced me utterly….

Sometimes he will make little suggestions like, “make this lotus more life-like or put a champagne bottle in the offerings” or sometimes just hearing him talk about dharma or deities or art or anything, serves as inspiration.

Longchenpa By Tara Di

K: Following along that line, tell me about what inspires you in your art?

T: Probably ultimately the Dharma, and the yearning to be free, and of course the living embodiments of the deites, all the amazing Lineage Teachers. I think in the beginning, it was being around Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, my teacher Jamyang Gyatso and his mom – they were embodiments of this joy and purity. When I was young, art was joyful and innocent. When I started to study more formally, with western art – it felt like western art wasn’t cultivating areas of my being that I wanted to cultivate. I loved the idea of offering something to people that gave them joy. What was so profound about Thangka painting was it did feel as though you were offering your heart out. Remember these deities are symbols of everyone’s inherent nature, and so it isn’t your personal self-expression but it is something more universal. The forms and rules aren’t my invention and it feels very much like if I don’t let go enough and surrender to the tradition, it doesn’t flow through. So there is a balance with letting that happen but allowing my flavour in too. Also, painting for someone feels very reciprocal ~ I’m making a painting for them but it’s also their faith and devotion and trust in the path that would make them want one in the first place. That is really inspiring and I appreciate it a lot.

K: I know that most of the people who will be reading this interview will be artists as well as dharma practitioners. How do you mix dharma and art?

T: I think it’s just the same as dharma and life going together. It feels more genuine to be raw and present, to try to be awake, to offer that to the painting, but of course I get lost too, constantly, and so that’s just the aspiration…to be present, to come back again and again…

K: I agree with that. I feel this awareness really comes through in your painting.

K: So…. you have a SMALL reputation of someone who takes a long time to paint a Thangka. For those out there who don’t know you as well as I do – How many hours would you say you spend a day painting?

T: It really depends on my outer circumstances but in general, these days I would say ideally a minimum of 8-12 hours, 7 days a week unless I have to stop to clean or shop or something.

K: So you spend pretty much your every waking hour painting – even late into the wee hours of the morning?

T:I have been told to “speed up” so I’m trying to do that now. So until I figure it out I’m trying to just immerse myself in it. I am still trying to understand this because I feel the paintings do have a life of their own and. I can’t push that. At the same time, clearly I see so much letting go in myself that needs to happen, and so probably my slowness is a manifestation of that… there’s always so much more to let go of. Ideally I isolate myself and I paint as much as I can without going cross-eyed. If the spell of the painting gets broken for me by outer circumstances, its hard to come back, but I aspire to become stronger, so my outer circumstances don’t have such an effect. I’m trying to speed up by being more confident and more present and yet at the same time not fall into habits with them. If I just followed a formula they would be easier to do and faster. It’s such a balance of outer and inner elements.

Gesar by Tara Di

K: I get so frustrated sometimes knowing how much time you spend on your thangkas and knowing that some artists out there can spend one day painting one painting and ask for $10,000 for it. Its so frustrating that there can’t be a way to value the amount of time, energy and talent that is put into your painting. I feel you should be paid SO much more for the original artwork and then sell lots of prints so that your time and energy can be monetarily rewarded. Do you think it’s worth it to work so very hard for the relatively small monetary reward?

T: It’s hard to live in this world where you have to think about things like money and putting values on your work. It’s painful and awkward. I don’t like having to talk to people about money and to charge people when doing it in the first place seems to be part of a different set of ideals. I do feel profoundly rich in being able to do something like this and get paid for it. I am thrilled that people even ask me. I feel so lucky. I just haven’t found the balance of how to do this and also have a good livelihood. In some ways it’s so crazy, I still don’t know if it makes any kind of sense. I’m always prepared for it all to fall apart and to have to get a job at McDonalds! I do have my own obstacles that I have to work out with regards to the livelihood part of it. It’s never been my strength. I am not practical and this is a blessing and a curse. I couldn’t imagine anything else in the world that I could possibly do. It so nice that there is a place for this crazy Thangka painter in this modern world! So I feel so fortunate that I have found a way to stay alive and do this.

K: So I’ve been dying to ask you… when you say Rinpoche scolded you – what did he actually say?

T: He kind of said something like: “Because you’re too insecure, you are not painting Thangkas and I have to pay other people to do it.”

K: I am so glad you listened to him! Do you have some advice you would like to give others who are inspired to become Thangka painters?

T: I think it can be a very profound discipline…. its wonderful for people who have no artistic background because as it is a craft in some sense, anyone can learn it. A lot of my friends who paint really beautiful Thangkas never drew or painted before this. Just having the openness to surrender to the form completely, and devotion to dharma, their work is beautiful and full of heart as well as technically amazing. There is the Tsering Art School in Nepal (at Shechen), Cynthia Moku in the US who is a wonderful painter and teacher at Naropa Institute. An other amazing teacher is Ngodrup Rongae in Manali. I think he has a school as well. There are many many more living masters. For someone who has artistic training, I love how Thangka painting reaches something much bigger and deeper than “self ” expression. There is so much freedom in that. The many boundaries and the lineage of this tradition seem to serve as reminders to let go of oneself ~ which is what we all aspire to do. I think all art forms can support that, with the right intention.


Tara Di


If you would like to buy prints of Tara’s work or if you would like to commission a piece from her, please contact her directly at Watch this space for her new website address!

Posted in Feature Article

Authentic Study

February 28th, 2012

Excerpts of an interview with Charlotte Davis by Paul Ferguson
Nov 2011


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.


Guru Rinpoche, 2000 By Charlotte Davis

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.


Hayagriva, 2001 By Charlotte Davis

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.


Jigme Lingpa, 2010 By Charlotte Davis

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

Tsering Art School

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 Lineage

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.

To enquire about study or to commission a thangka, please contact Lobsang Dolma on or visit the website at


Posted in Feature Article

Art as Celebration of Unlimited Reality

February 28th, 2012

By Jakob Leschly

One of the things we need to remember about Buddhist art, and perhaps sacred art in general, is that it is not situated within a fragmented world view. The familiar split we in the modern world more or less consciously subscribe to, a three-way divorce between science, ethics, and art, does not generally apply to sacred art. Sacred art expresses undiluted reality, reality properly seen, and as such it represents knowledge and insight, which again has an immensely constructive role in providing vision and values – the key ingredients in a good life, as well as in the case of Buddhism, the foundation for enlightenment. While the poverty of a world that has separated beauty from truth and moral direction is increasingly palpable, one can still appreciate the brilliance of the cultures that have not fallen prey to such bad science.

Modern Optics

The sacred as a realistic perspective on our experience is almost a contradiction in the modern world, where the sacred is often constructed as part of the great and soothing myths or narratives that are anything but realistic. But then again, the modern view of reality is quite different from most other cultures. The modern world’s view on reality is founded on an amputated science that excludes consciousness and spirit from observable matter, with real science exclusively operating with so-called objective knowledge – data and information exclusively established on the basis on what can be measured and empirically verified. Anything beyond that is problematic; anything that has to do with what we really live for is a grey zone. Go figure it out yourself – don’t come looking for wisdom in the hallowed halls of Stanford, Cambridge or Leiden!

In our modern culture, the real issues of our existence – those of our heart and mind – are traditionally the domains of ethics and religion. Sadly, for the modern believer in science, ethics are generally regarded as something impossibly relative, and religion is seen as founded on impossible fairy tales. Ethics and religion appear to have little to do with reasoning. And far from both science and religion, art has retreated to a neighbourhood that celebrates human creativity without any particular allegiance to either of the former two. At times a guru, at times an entertainer, at times a rebel, art generally has no pretence of representing more than fragments of human reality. The source of its inspiration is indeed often beauty and love, but also just as often confusion and suffering.


The Context of Sacred Reality

Sacred art, or the art of awakening, as we find it in Buddhism, and in numerous other sacred art traditions, is founded on a holistic vision that unites science with religion as the path that enables the awakening to reality. Science as truth and valid knowledge is key in Buddhism. We could translate the Sanskrit term for Buddhism, Dharma, as the study or law of reality. So a Buddhist studies to acquire a vision or grasp of reality, and the practice of Dharma is appreciated as eliminating confusion and dogma and unveiling what is undeceiving and valid. The Dharma is embraced not through blind faith or belief, but rather on the basis of a decisive critique of the deluded assumptions about reality that inevitably lead to suffering. Sacred art is based on liberation from delusion, and an unlimited vision of reality. Such vision reflects accurate knowledge of reality, and accurate knowledge of what leads to happiness and liberation. Such science is wisdom, and, being the domain of the sage, not the scientist, she is happily married to both ethical practice and the joy of artistic expression.

Liberation and enlightenment has inspired an immense production of art that celebrates its immanence and validity. In that enlightenment is regarded as pinnacle of life’s potential, Buddhist art everywhere celebrates this vision in paintings, sculptures, architecture, and calligraphy, flower-arranging, not to mention empty space – the gap that allows us to appreciate both space and the content of space. While the Sutra traditions, particularly Zen, celebrate the nature of wisdom through the beauty of uncluttered space, the Tantric traditions celebrate the inseparability of wisdom and its manifest qualities, reflected in an immense wealth of vivid and powerful sacred art, that also includes music, dance, and sensuality.

Engaging with the Sacred

Sacred art is not objectified and passively beheld as is common in our cultural practice of viewing art. Sacred art is seen as speaking to, or invoking, an inner heritage of what is profound and real, and so its real value is not in the external support – the piece of art itself. The experience of being touched profoundly by what is intuited as real can be called blessing, and as such the piece of art is not merely observed, but is seen as something that we interact or connect with. It touches us and provides us with the relief of recognising an inner wealth that lies beyond the stranglehold of our self-imposed limitation – samsara. For that reason, sacred art in Buddhism is sometimes viewed as a nirmanakaya, or physical manifestation of enlightenment.

Buddhist cultures, and other cultures that live with a sacred vision, do not celebrate their art through merely placing them in museums or galleries; sacred art is celebrated everywhere: in the streets, in the temples, in the hills, in the fields, in workplaces and homes, rendering immanent the sacred that is innate to all life, and providing a possibility of doing so. The sacred is celebrated with innumerable offerings, such as flowers, incense, light, song, poetry, and in the best case – a non-dual appreciation of the sacred within.

In front of sacred art, one does not dwell on some perceived gap between the sacred and one self, but extends a gesture of appreciation and connects with the sacred, or buddha nature, through bowing down and making offerings. In Indian and Tibetan temples, the shrine consists of two aspects: first, the support for the sacred – statues, books, objects, and secondly the place where the offerings are placed. A shrine is not a static institution, but is lively interacted with through honouring the support of the sacred through bowing, and through making offerings. These practices are generally done first thing in the morning, and they are continued throughout the day.

Vision of Life

We can see this practice of connecting with a greater vision of reality in cultures that have so far been untouched by the modern practice of leaving the primary concern of all life – happiness – to being a random private project that is inevitably subject to subjective confusion. In almost any other culture beside that of modernity, sacred art permeates all fabrics of societies with a vibrant way of connecting with, and celebrating, that which is real, and that which brings, on one hand the conditions for temporary and ordinary happiness and, on the other hand, liberation and enlightenment.

Disclaimer: the author apologises for any irritation or discomfort brought on by this article. Raised in the simple-minded cult of modern western rationality, he has had to de-program himself from numerous kinds of blind faith, assumptions, and dogma, and only gradually has the brilliant logic, vision, and liberation of innumerable Buddhist masters been able to penetrate his traumatised mind and heart, and resuscitate a minimal degree of natural sanity. A work in progress, his journey has unceasingly been inspired by the immense luminous beauty and power of traditional Tibetan art.

Lhatsun Namkha Jigme - from Shechen Archives


Posted in Feature Article

Of Courtesan Songs and Sanskrit Sutras

February 28th, 2012

by Vidya Rao

There was always music in the house when I was growing up. My mother loved music, and though she was not a professional singer, she sang all the time in her strong, pure voice. She would listen to all the great singers who came to perform in the town where I grew up; I would go with her. Sometimes I would doze half way through those all-night events, when singer followed great singer, until the first rays of dawn, when we would all go home, sleepy and replete with all that we had heard.

There was one kind of song that particularly entranced me. Very rarely was it sung, very few people sang it, and when it was heard at all, it was always only at the end of a concert. Light, lilting songs of love and separation and yearning, their cadences stayed with me long after we went home, back to our ordinary lives. I learnt that those songs were called Thumri and I learnt that most people I met and spoke with considered them less than appropriate.  Some years later, more worldly-wise now, I understood why. Thumri had, only a few years before this, been the exclusive preserve of the courtesan singers. In a recently independent, rapidly modernising India attempting to reclaim and reinterpret its past, Thumri —erotic, associated with the courtesan singers and the feudal courts of the nineteenth century—was considered highly problematic, and certainly not something a young middle class girl should be wanting to learn! Middle class women had only very recently entered the world of music as listeners, students and performers. When they did enter this world, it was generally to study, and perform the more respectable ‘male’ forms like khayal and dhrupad. These styles are formal, more structured, less emotional and certainly less focused on the erotic. Many years later, a grown woman now, I was fortunate to find a guru who taught me Thumri. And that is what , as a professional singer, I generally perform.

Deer Park Sarasvati Photo Raymond Steiner

I began learning music when I was seven. Like all young women of the time whose parents were broadminded enough to allow them music lessons, I too began with training in khayal singing. Simultaneously, at school—the Krishnamurti Foundation-run Rishi Valley—I learnt Sanskrit chanting. I remember those morning assemblies at school when we would chant verses from the Vedas and the Upanishads, a practice that has also stayed with me over the years. The three-note structure, typical of vedic chanting brings a quietness and meditative quality into one’s being. The texts themselves are exquisite reminders of the Teachings that, by articulating in my own voice every day, I am able to bring into my life in a kind of embodied way.

But equally, Sanskrit chanting also lends a gravitas, resonance and depth to the voice. It is also, as I understand it a kind of articulated breath-work, or pranayam. So not only does this chanting create a sense of calm abiding, but it is also excellent exercise for the voice. Moreover, the structure of Sanskrit with its long compound words filled with consonant clusters poses a contrast to the elongated vowel sounds typical of Thumri. The practice of enunciating Sanskrit poses both a challenge and an opportunity to engage with a very different sound-linguistic structure, which again, I believe lends tone and texture to the voice. I still begin the morning with silent meditation followed by chanting of Sanskrit verses from both Buddhist and Hindu texts.

My growing interest in Buddhism—an interest that began in my school days– led me to teachings by several masters, and especially by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I would long to be able to offer my music to him, and to place it in the service of the dharma. Miraculously, one day, several years ago, Lama Doboom Tulku Rimpoche of New Delhi’s Tibet House asked me to chant sutras in Sanskrit on the morning of Buddha Jayanti, the day of Buddha’s birth. It was a lovely morning in May, unusually cool for that time of year. A small group of practitioners met in Delhi’s lovely Buddha Jayanti park before the statue of the Buddha which has been presented to the people of India by His Holiness. We meditated against the background of chirping birds and the laughter of children picnicking on the grass. Verses from the Buddhist texts were chanted in different languages like Pali and Japanese. I recited verses in Sanskrit. We meditated again, and then shared a welcome breakfast, before going back to our busy lives. After that auspicious day, I was fortunate to be asked to recite sutras in Sanskrit on many occasions, and several times in the presence of His Holiness too.

Then one day, again quite miraculously, I was asked by Prashant Verma, now Director of the Deer Park Institute in India to chant sutras at the inauguration of a monastery at Bir in Himachal Pradesh and in the presence of His Holiness. That was my first meeting with Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche, and the beginning too of what I believe is a life-long connection with Rimpoche, and with the Deer Park Institute. It was with Rimpoche’s encouragement that I undertook to record the album Dharma Nada for the Deer Park Institute.

Vidya Rao

How, one might ask, do I reconcile these two aspects of my musical life– the singing of an erotic courtesan form like Thumri, and of the austere, structured Buddhist chants. Thumri, as a form, is set squarely in the everyday world, secular, earthy, and calculated to evoke desire. On the other hand, the Buddhist sutras encode the abstract and highly philosophical teachings on bodhichitta, wisdom and method and especially, emptiness. Yet for me, it is precisely the dance of these two forms and philosophical ways of being in the world that I believe gives me a balance that allows me to live in this world. To engage with it deeply, and yet not be swamped by its bewildering experiences, to begin perhaps to understand the brilliance and vibrancy of beloved form as essentially, and equally belovedly, empty. I believe that if I had to make do with only one of these musical spaces, I would be, as the sutras say, a bird with only one wing— and I need both these wings to fly. Living and working with these two very different musical forms, I am able to play hide and seek with form and emptiness, recognising that both have their place, both are precious, and an understanding of both is essential.


A book review of Heart to Heart: Remembering Naina Devi

Legendary singer, Naina Devi was born into a Bengali Brahmo Samaj reformist family in the early years of the twentieth century. A childhood replete with music, dance, theatre and social reform gave way to the grandeur and seclusion of the life of a young queen of the Kapurthala royal family of Punjab. Despite seventeen years of silence necessitated by the norms of a royal household, she came back to music and a glorious career as a singer, arts-administrator, teacher and patron, after the tragic death of her husband.

Heart to Heart, traces Naina Devi’s incredible story as she told it to her disciple, Vidya Rao. Naina Devi’s story traces the changes in the world of Indian classical music, women singers and women in Indian society over the last century. Learning seena-ba-seena, heart to heart, in a seamless blend of music and life-lessons, Rao imbibed not just a knowledge of her chosen form, Thumri, but a sense of the very being of her teacher.

The evocative narrative weaves back and forth between historical record and memory, past and present, and between  Naina Devi’s voice and Rao’s own. It illuminates the power and beauty of music, the lives of these two women and of many others, of courage, pain, joy and love, and of the deep bond between Rao and her beloved Guru.



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