Pursuing Buddhist Devotion Through The Art of Thangka

There was a day in late October, 1990, that Kalsang Dawa, then 18, stood at the crest of a 6,000-metre-high Himalayan pass and knew that whatever lay ahead had to be better than what lay behind. Back there was Tibet. Recent protests against the Chinese occupation had taken hundreds of lives in Lhasa. He’d heard bullets whistling above his head. He’d seen people die. So he’d told his parents he was leaving, that he might never see them again, that he would walk to Nepal—through the highest mountains in the world—in early winter, and if he made it, he’d try to reach the exiled Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and begin a new life there. He was joined on this clandestine trek by dozens of other Tibetan refugees—Buddhist monks and nuns, families with small children, even the elderly who also realized their ancient culture faced annihilation. The mountainous land they crossed was mostly lifeless. Villages few. Food scarce. Sometimes he’d awake half-frozen, buried in fresh snow. Sometimes he’d barter the clothing in his backpack for a few potatoes. Sometimes he ate grass. For four weeks Dawa walked, often at night to avoid military checkpoints, knowing he and his companions were headed toward either death or freedom.

At the top of that obscure 6,000-metre pass on the Tibet/Nepal border, Dawa had no idea what his future held. He, like the 150,000 other Tibetans in this multiyear exodus toward India, couldn’t see what came next; he could not know that a series of events would first bring him to Dharamsala, and then directly into the ecclesiastical realm of the Dalai Lama, where he would learn to paint. Or that later, chance would propel him halfway around the world to Vancouver where he sits cross-legged today, as he does every evening, maintaining an ancient tradition by creating meticulous thangkas—meditative images—of the myriad and mystical deities that populate Buddhist mythology. Through long nights of meditation, through hand-grinding with a mortar and pestle colourful minerals into pigments, through utilizing sable brushes of needletip fineness, and through painting the often multi-armed, multi-headed demigods of Tantric cosmology, Dawa is—as the Dalai Lama had hoped—keeping alive in exile the spiritual world rapidly ending in today’s Tibet.

As he sits on his studio-floor cushion today and describes the eight years of apprenticeship he experienced in Dharamsala, Dawa often feigns mock horror or laughs aloud at the gruelling artistic regimen demanded of a novice Buddhist artist. What is required is the antithesis of the multitasking, never-a-moment-wasted, Tweeting, LinkedIn modern world. Under the vigilant eye of the late Sangye Yeshi, the Dalai Lama’s personal thangka master, the young Dawa spent three years drawing—in pencil—Buddha’s face. Hundreds and hundreds of times. “Very simple is hard,” he says of that effort. “I was frustrated. I wasn’t good. I didn’t completely trust myself. And thangkas are a manifestation of self. You don’t draw the deity. The deity draws you.” He laughs at the koan-like mysteriousness of his words.

He was finally allowed to use colours. Buddhist practice demands the paint be made slowly, joyfully, by hand; in fact, every painterly task is about mindfulness, about being present: the making of the canvas, the brushes, the paint; the preparatory hours of meditating on the deity; the actual painting. In these ways, the painter imbibes the deity. So, while walking through Dharamsala’s streets, while eating his pre-dawn breakfast or drinking tea, while watching TV, Dawa would reduce small chunks of lapis lazuli, cinnabar, and realgar to fine powders of deep blue, brick red, and sulphurous yellow. Days would become months as dozens of solid rocks became colours. Then he’d grind yak skins or seaweed into a moist binder that would, in time, turn the powder to paint. “There’s no easy way,” he says, as he mimes with his hands this working meditation. “Grinding is the practice of patience. In order to paint the deity, you must become the deity.” He is, as far as he knows, one of the last thangka artist in the world still using the ancient, painstaking steps that, says Buddhist doctrine, lead to Enlightenment.

Outside on this sunny September afternoon, the first leaves are spiralling down, a shower of autumn colours that mimic those within the scores of tiny paint-filled Indian tea bowls sitting beneath a window on a low shelf beside Dawa. His Dutch-Hungarian wife, Aranka, is at school; she’s completing a PhD in epidemiology at UBC. Their two-year-old daughter, Sunya, is in daycare. Dawa, with goatee, earring, and mane of unruly black hair, looks like Johnny Depp on a nonpiratical day. He chooses not to dwell on politics: the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s; the failed rebellion that followed; the Dalai Lama’s escape through the Himalayas to India in 1959; the subsequent destruction of thousands of Tibetan monasteries during the years of China’s Cultural Revolution; and 30 recent self-immolations in Tibet, mostly of Buddhist monks and nuns protesting the loss of their spiritual world.

“Tibetans have a fear of losing their traditions,” says Dawa. “The thangkas are a means of holding onto the old ways.” Unlike the Eastern Orthodox churches’ gold-encrusted Christian icons, which are meant to be worshipped, the thangka depictions of the Tantric deities are meant to be entered. For they are—to use Dawa’s word—“gateways” to consciousness. They lie at the heart of Tibetan spiritual practice.
Dawa turns around a large, recently finished thangka from its resting place against one wall. His Green Tara is an almond-eyed female deity, he explains, poised between suffering and compassion. Bubble-buoyed, airborne, and emerald-green, the figure floats on a lotus blossom amid blue-grey clouds. She is a protector, a reminder of how rising above illusions can overcome green jealousy. And then, turning around another finished thangka, there’s ferocious, multi-armed, skull-crowned Heruka, upright and dancing in coital union with his pale-blue female wisdom consort. The weapons Heruka wields, the garland of skulls, the couple’s intimate Tantric embrace are all symbolic clues, says Dawa, of how wrath can be transmuted into wisdom. “The dance produces oneness,” Dawa says.

Reflecting on his years in Gang­chen Kyishong, the ecclesiastical precinct of Dharamsala’s Tibetan government-in-exile, Dawa admits he struggles at times—as most Tibetan immigrants struggle—between obligations to Buddhist traditions, imbued during years in the Dalai Lama’s proximity, and the powerful tug of modernity. “I remember the Dalai Lama talking about Tantric practice,” Dawa says as he considers the dancing Heruka. “He explained that, in coupling, you do not come. You control desire. You do not lose yourself. You over-come. You become champion of your mind, rather than your mind being champion of your body.”

But the aphorism, as Dawa knows, collides with modern reality. How does an ancient culture based on monastic life and meditation survive in the age of Facebook and hook-ups? How do his thangkas remain vital if Buddhist orthodoxy requires he make the exact same images as were made 800 years ago? He’s well aware of B.C. native Brian Jungen, and his aboriginal masks made of Nike Air Jordans. He understands the impetus for Navajo artists to apply their magical motifs to skateboards. “To live is to experiment,” says Dawa. “Buddhism doesn’t mean being limited by tradition. Buddhism allows for growth.”

Later, with darkness outside his studio windows and his late-night house silent, Dawa sits meditating, his brushes and paint cups to his right, his head facing the canvas and the half-finished demigod. From decades of study, he knows the deity intimately, its symbolic gestures and philosophic intentions. While painting, he’s no longer afraid to break calcified Buddhist traditions and make the figure his own. But he does so respectfully. During a six-hour night, he covers an area the size of a thumbnail. Over the course of several months, working from the image’s landscaped perimeter inward toward the central figure’s shape, then to the face, then to the eyes, Dawa enters a place of absolute focus. “I go into a different zone,” he explains. “I disconnect with time. I’m there. I become the deity.”

When he reaches the penultimate moment, he paints the deity’s pupils. “In Tibet, once that happens,” says Dawa, gesturing as if applying two tiny dots, “there’s a party. You’ve opened the deity’s eyes—you’ve invited it to come alive!” His voice hints at the thrill of paint transmuted into a sentient being.

According to Buddhist doctrine, if the painting is true, if the skill and the sincerity of the thangka artist are complete, the painting lives. The deity looks out and sees you, just as you see it. And if the meditating viewer is transformed by this mutual recognition, says Dawa, then the thangka figure begins to dance. “You are here,” explains Dawa of that moment of transcendent insight, “because of all the conditions that have led to you. You are not one entity; you are a result of all the other entities that have led you to this awareness. You are part of a great dance. Everything is related to everything.” A teenager fleeing through the snows of Tibet. Endless pencil sketches of Buddha’s face. An immigrant’s airplane flight to Vancouver. A single rock ground to infinite grains of blue.