-By Susannah Mohan
Perhaps nowhere in the world is art so closely interlinked with religion as it is in Tibetan culture. Buddhist motifs and philosophy permeate every art form, from the auspicious symbols used to decorate traditional architecture and furniture, to the complex depictions of deities in religious statues and thangkas. These art forms are rooted in centuries-old traditions, which have been handed down from master to student in unbroken artistic lineages. With the upheaval in Tibet beginning in the late 1950’s, many of these traditions, which were preserved only in the minds of those who practiced the skills, were in danger of being lost. Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala arose out of a desire to create a haven in India for Tibetan art to flourish. As so many refugees were crossing the Himalayas from Tibet, we wanted to provide a center where accomplished masters could come and teach their skills to younger generations of Tibetans who desired to pursue a calling in traditional arts. For these aspiring artists, we provide tuition-free training, and a place in our studios, thus ensuring that the unique artistic forms that bloomed in Tibet will be passed down in an unbroken continuity.
The preservation of these rare art forms is of benefit not only to Tibetans, but also can be seen as an effort to conserve the cultural wealth which is part of the shared inheritance of the entire world.
Beginning from the seventh century when Buddhism was first brought to Tibet, an initiative was made to gather and record as many teachings as possible. In fact, the written Tibetan language was created just for the purpose of translating scriptures from Sanskrit. Countless masters were invited from India to give teachings, and just as many Tibetan pilgrims travelled to India for the purpose of bringing back precious transmissions. After Buddhism had all but faded from the Indian subcontinent, Tibet, an isolated country protected by natural mountain barriers, continued to nurture, practice, and expand upon the teachings they had collected, diligently passing on rare tantric transmissions for centuries from master to disciple. Because of this effort made to maintain the spiritual lineages of their forefathers, the sacred knowledge of realised adepts of the past is still available to the world today.
In many ways, Tibetan religious art can be seen as branch of this spiritual heritage, and a material support for the transmission and practice of sacred teachings, leading beings out of suffering. These works act as objects of offering and devotion, and for meditation practitioners, they are useful tools in developing clear visualisations of deities. Usually meditations involve visualising one or many deities, and through religious art, a meditator learns exactly how to imagine each one. As they practice over time, this visualisation becomes clearer and they are able to imagine more and more minute details and sustain them for longer periods of time, until they are able to evoke images in the mind as clearly as if they were seeing them with their eyes.
The forms of deities are based on the visions of great masters at moments of realisation. The exact representation of these deities, including specific colors and measurements for each part of the body, are then recorded in Buddhist scripture and form the guidelines for Tibetan artists to follow. A thangka or statue can be seen as a road map, guiding a practitioner back to the original realisation of the master. For the artist, it is important to ensure that the map is correct, and any true work of religious art must adhere exactly to the specifications laid out in scripture. It is the great responsibility of the artist to never deviate from these provisions, or else the knowledge contained within the original realisation of the master is lost.
In this modern era of globalisation and technology, many exciting things are happening in the world, including the exchange of cultural knowledge that was once only available to those who grew up within a particular society. However, because of the pace at which the world moves, and because commerce is often prioritised, an in-depth transmission of cultural values is often substituted for bite-sized, ready-made versions of a more complex reality. This has affected the realm of Tibetan religious art, which requires many years to master, and a great amount of time to create properly so that it can fulfill the original spiritual purpose for which it was intended. This often results in shortcuts which are taken in order to be able to produce a larger quantity of pieces. While seemingly harmless in itself, this dynamic can be detrimental to the original tradition. If copies are given, the same value as authentic works of art, there will be no urgency to preserve the tradition. Knowledge of the original art will be lost, and with it too the access or window it provided into a spiritual truth.
At Norbulingka, we feel it is our responsibility to create works of art which are in alignment with traditional methods, thus keeping alive the true spirit of the art forms, and providing people with genuine tools of support in their spiritual quest. This means doing things the old way–painstakingly stitching and preparing canvasses by hand, following iconographic grids to maintain the correct proportions, mixing pigments from crushed mineral powders, and applying colour gradually in countless individual brushstrokes. As part of our mission, we also offer aspiring Tibetan artists tuition-free apprenticeships, training them in each aspect of creation, making sure that that each step of the process is understood and done properly. Students do not have to worry about earning a living during their training period, and can fully devote themselves to the art. After students finish their three-year apprenticeship, they have the option to join our studios and continue to hone their skills under the supervision of the master.
Now over twenty years since our founding, we have trained hundreds of students in the traditional arts, reinvigorating a whole generation of artists, and raising the global standard by which such artworks are created. Norbulingka also welcomes thousands of visitors each year to come and explore our grounds and studios, witnessing for themselves the splendor of Tibetan art. In response to the recent interest from the international community, we have also begun offering customisable workshops for groups and individuals to train in the principles of Tibetan art.
Interestingly, the way that history works: from India travelled a precious jewel, which Tibetans faithfully guarded in seclusion over many long centuries. And now, when perhaps the world needs the dharma most, India has again provided a refuge where the ancient traditions that trace their roots back to this holy land can thrive.
For more information on Norbulingka, please visit: www.norbulingka.org
Susannah Mohan was born and raised in the US. She attended Marlboro College, and graduated in 2010 with a BA in Writing and Religion. After graduation, she and her partner, who had grown up in Dharamsala, moved back to India. She has been happily working as the Communications Director at Norbulingka Institute for the past six years, and hopes to continue to do so for many years to come.