the sphere of vision

the art of thankga midwifery in Vajrayana Buddhism

I have no background in the visual arts, yet when I began my training as a thangka painter this was considered a distinct advantage. Ngak'chang Rinpoche told me that he had tried to teach various people to paint thangkas in the past, and found that the creative impulse was the biggest obstacle for people. The will toward self-expression is a handicap when it comes to painting thangkas, and so I am fortunate in having no interest in expressing myself in that way.

Artists are creative people with ideas they wish to express and maybe messages they wish to convey. A thangka painter, however, is a facilitator or a midwife rather than an artist in the usual sense of the word. The child delivered by a midwife is not the midwife's own child. She has not created the child – she has simply helped a woman to give birth; and when the child is born, her work is completed.

The parents of a thangka are emptiness and form. Emptiness is the mother – the "unmanifest" or "creative space." Form is the father – "that which manifests." In Vajrayana Buddhism emptiness and form relate to wisdom and met hod. The thangka painter is a visionary midwife – through her skill in method, she allows wisdom appearances to be born. The thangka painter must paint from the perspective of creative space rather than painting according to limited personal ideas.

I felt motivated to paint thangkas due to the fact that the lineage of which Ngak'chang Rinpoche and I are the current holders desperately needed a thangka painter – and one who could train other painters. The visionary practices of the Aro gTér lineage needed to be preserved. Preservation in this case actually means that they have to be brought into being, because no painted images have survived. The Chinese invasion terminated this relatively young Vajrayana tradition before it was disseminated beyond the encampment where the female visionary Khyungchen Aro Lingma taught.

The Aro gTér is primarily a lineage of unusual women or "wisdom-eccentrics" who lived either as solitary practitioners or married recluses. Khyungchen Aro Lingma (1886 –1923) received the Aro gTér teachings through a visionary revelation from Yeshéé Tsogyel, the female Buddha and consort of Padmasambhava. Ngak'chang Rinpoche is the incarnation of Aro Yeshé, who was the son of Aro Lingma. He is the current holder of the Aro gTér lineage and I am his wife. Ngak'chang Rinpoche has given me transmission of the complete Aro gTér cycles of teaching and practice and we now jointly hold the lineage. My participation as a lineage holder does not lie in teaching through language either written or in speech but through presenting the visionary image of the lineage.

Thangkas are used in Vajrayana Buddhism as a method of guiding practitioners to experience themselves in enlightened form, to transform themselves through "wearing the body of visions." Practitioners let go of their ordinary sense of themselves in order to experience themselves as yidams. A yidam is an "anthropomorphic symbol of the non-dual or enlightened state." The appearance of such a being has the power to transform the nature of our dualistic bewilderment.

Anyone who gains enlightenment can lend his or her appearance as a means of transformation. Good examples are Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel, the Tantric Buddhas. If we wish to experience our own beginningless enlightenments we can do so through experiencing ourselves as one of these enlightened beings. If we are able to accomplish this totally, we can discover that we are actually identical to them. When enlightenment is realized through them we become what we actually are.

According to Vajrayana we are symbols of ourselves. We are all beginninglessly enlightened beings – but because we do not recognize ourselves as such, we exist as symbols of our enlightenment. The method of yidam is a powerful way of accomplishing recognition. Yidams point to what we are, through making available an "enlightened personality." The more we practise the yidam, the more the disparity between our confused dualistic experience and the non-dual nature of the yidam provides the friction that burns through the illusion of duality.

This is why, in thangka painting, self-expression is an obstacle. I am not attempting to say anything or to be creative – I am simply attempting to be as accurate as possible in terms of portraying the visionary methods as described in the teachings of Aro Lingma. Accuracy and complete faithfulness to presenting the yidam is an avowed duty, because people rely upon the images I paint to inspire them in practice. If my painting seeks to promote my own subjectivity, I actually betray the trust of those who incorporate these images as the most important aspects of their lives.

Our lineage Lamas, some of whom are also yidam forms, are crucial to developing a sense of history among our students. Accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century yogis and yoginis are all very well, but most students find them a little abstract until a picture emerges. They then become flesh and blood people – they become relatives. It is as if one were looking at photographs of ones grandparents. That is my aim – to bring the tradition alive for people, but not to impose myself on the images.

Ngak'chang Rinpoche works with me quite closely on new images – especially where there is no clear iconographic reference. It is something of a mutual process that is mainly intuitive and non-directive on either of our parts. This is especially the case when I am trying to draw a face. It is more a case of looking for a face through the medium of moving a pencil. I know when I have found the face when it stops looking like a created face. A created face has a mouth, eyes and a nose that give the impression of having been assigned their places. The real face has its own personality and I am aware that something has happened. Ngak'chang Rinpoche and I always know when the face is there – we have never disagreed.

The interesting thing about the lack of self-expression in thangka painting is that one cannot actually help expressing oneself. I now teach a small group of our female students thangka painting, and we have a painting retreat once a year. Each painter is distinct in her style, even though she is trying to maintain a style that is characteristic of the Aro gTér lineage in the West.

The thangkas I paint and that our students paint are more vivid in terms of colour than the traditional Tibetan images. Our style has emerged as a response to the visionary material itself, and so the Aro gTér style is characterized by the dominance of the five elemental colours. A thangka is intended to depict the pure light display of the elements: earth (yellow), water (white), fire (red), air (green)and space (blue) – and so these colours should be vivid. There are various schools or traditions of thangka painting and they all differ according to certain considerations. Some people have thought that my style represents a westernization – but this is a misunderstanding of the reasoning behind the greater vividness and simplicity of the images. The ideal thangka would be a holographic light image suspended in space, so I attempt to portray the translucency of that visionary dimension as faithfully as I can.

In order to be invisible as a painter I need to fail to observe myself painting. Painting simply needs to happen. There is concentration – but the concentration cannot be forced. I must be relaxed as well – but not sloppy or absent-minded. When concentration and relaxation are undivided, the lines flow. If I become self-conscious, the drawing becomes like wading through mud.

The sense of accurate observation I try to achieve is one that could be described as spacious and honest. I need to work quite hard to make progress, especially with a new drawing, but I cannot allow myself to become impatient or frustrated. Like a midwife, I need to allow the image to be born, and sometimes – especially with the initial line drawing, that can take a long time. There is no guarantee once the paper goes into labour when the point of birth will occur. I start with a written description of the yidam and maybe other references, which generally guide the emerging form. When working from a visionary source, however, this information is only half of the equation – the "form aspect." There is then the "emptiness aspect", for which there is no description. One might call that creativity, of course – but not if one considers oneself to be a visionary midwife.

Maybe there is no difference in terms of pure creativity between a thangka painter and an artist – apart from how one sees oneself and one's engagement. If I were to polish a piece of copper until I could see my face in it – it may be a perfect work of polishing, but each individual would see a different face. Everyone who practises using a thangka that I have painted could experience his or her own enlightened mind, but the reflective surface, the yidam, is not my creation – I merely polished that mirror. In polishing a mirror or painting a thangka, the most important consideration is to avoid distortion, so that whoever gazes into the mirror sees their enlightened nature – face to face.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life