Tag Archives: thangka

Sketches of Lhasa (#2)

11 Oct

Rock paintings of Lamas outside Drepung Monastery

Drepung Monastery was built in 1416. It is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is also a university for monks seeking formal instruction in Buddhism. It was the primary residence of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama finished the Potala Palace. The tombs of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Dalai Lamas are all housed in the main temple of the Drepung which is located just a few kilometers to the west of Lhasa and sits on the top of a small hill. A good chunk of the original monastery complex was destroyed during the 1959 PRC liberation of Tibet. When I visited in 2007, Drepung was so quiet that it seemed deserted. So, a year later, I was incredulous as I read the limited news releases coming out of Tibet, which reported that some of the monks at Drepung had been apprehended (and likely never seen again) for taking part in the uprisings which had erupted that spring in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet.  The entire monastery was then “closed” by the PRC for many months after it had crushed the dissent. I don’t think I saw more than a couple of monks in the entire monastery complex when I was there. I had the enormous assembly hall all to myself.  This hall contains tall columns and cushioned areas where the monks gather for prayer, ceremony, and debate. I strolled around the space with a relaxed stride and had no sense of time or urgency. I soaked up the details of each of the beautiful thangkas that rolled down from the rafters and beneath my feet were thick, multi-patterned Tibetan carpets.

Main Temple – Drepung Monastery

I veered off to the right side of the assembly hall and entered a few rooms where the ceilings were very high. In these rooms, I noticed wide shelves running up the sides of the walls and hitting the ceiling. Wire-like meshing had been placed outside of some of the shelves and parts of the items on the shelves crammed into this meshing. Due to the low light in these rooms, I had to use my flashlight to take a closer look at the shelves. I wanted to know what these ancient-looking, boxy items were.  I was able to see loose, rectangle-sized parchment leaves bound together by wood-like binding. They must have been over 300 years old.  Some of the parchment was nothing more than debris held only in place by centuries of inertia. These rooms were old libraries from Drepung’s earliest monastic university days. I wondered if they had ever been cataloged or interpreted by archaeologists, religious scholars, or any PRC agency.  I couldn’t believe that these books were sitting idly on these shelves untouched and crumbling into dust. The loss of knowledge is like losing anything else. Once it is gone there is only the memory of it and then the communication of that memory depends on who dictates it. I guess that’s how it goes.

Fresco – Drepung Monastery

On the walls around the assembly hall, the Drepung has striking frescoes showing “end of the world” scenes of man being ravaged by demons and beasts. These images reminded me of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch in the 15th century. The parallels were uncanny. I spent so much time studying these frescoes that when I finally made my way out of Drepung, I saw that my tour group shuttle had gone. I was not bothered since I had plans to ditch the group anyway. I knew there was another monastery nearby that I could walk to. This was the Nechung Monastery which although small in size contains the mystical soul of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nechung “Oracles” all used to live in this monastery and had their own special monks which tended to them.  I did not know what or who the “Oracle” was until I watched Martin Scorsese’s film, Kundun. The Nechung Oracle is a man who has the ability to serve as the medium between the earthly world and the spiritual realm. Through trance, reciting of mantras, and ritualized dance (complete with a heavy, ornate headdress), the Oracle opens himself to be possessed by the spirits who then are consulted on matters of prophesy, governmental affairs, the protection of the Dharma, and the security of the Dalai Lama. The process of undergoing a possession by the Oracle was sometimes so debilitating that the Oracle would be bedridden for weeks or even months afterwards. The Nechung Oracle was a state official in the government of pre-PRC Tibet and to this day serves as an important advisor to the Dalai Lama in exile. The Nechung Monastery had a very different vibe to it than any other monastery I had seen in Tibet.  It had been thoroughly destroyed in 1959 and rebuilt in part, but when I entered, I felt like I was walking through something that was still lying in smoking ruins.  Without the Nechung Oracle there, the monastery was dead. I know it is strange to say that about something which is made of nothing more than wooden beams and mortar, but there was only a feeling of death in Nechung.

Paintings on outside of Nechung Monastery

These feelings were reaffirmed by the harrowing paintings that had survived or been retouched on some of the walls of the central temple. These paintings showed menacing demons and serpents with their teeth and claws bared. Human skulls and flayed human skins were painted around door frames and along walls. Eyeballs dangled out of heads.

Detail of painting – Nechung Monastery

I thought about those Oracles who through the past centuries had passed through the doors which I myself walked through that day. I sensed the faint murmurs of something that to me was supernatural. There was a kind of spiritual “power source” emanating from Nechung — but this power source no longer had the medium it needed in order to be harnessed and wielded. It was flickering into oblivion – just like the books I had seen in Drepung.  A horrible realization struck me as I walked out of the Nechung:  Extinction.  It was happening right before my eyes.

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

I left Xigatse filled with conflict. In a way, I had contributed to the puppetry orchestrated at Tashilumpo by not saying a word about the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama. I snapped some pics and smiled at the monks I saw there and shelled out some Yuans for the monastery’s coffers and it all rang hollow. I squirreled away my thoughts and jotted down notes about the experience as we got back onto the “Friendship Highway” and continued to our next destination, Gyantse. Earlier in the trip I had seen the 4 Tibetan drivers of our tour group excitedly pile into one of the Landcruisers and they were watching something. I became curious, so I went to the car and stuck my head inside.  There was a DVD player hung from the passenger-side sunshade and it was showing the Dalai Lama speaking in Tibetan. My tour guide was standing outside the car and he proudly said he had smuggled the DVD into Tibet from Kathmandu in order to share it with the drivers and others he would see when we reached Lhasa. The thrill on the drivers’ faces was infectious.  They hung on each of the words they were hearing and were scrutinizing all the gestures and facial ticks of the Dalai Lama. They joked and laughed loud. There was a childlike wonderment in their playfulness. It was like they were tasting forbidden fruit, but rather than feel any shame or fear about the experience, they were passing it around and each taking a huge bite. How that scene contrasted with what I felt as we drove out of Xigatse in carefully sustained silence.

Gyantse Khumbum

The town of Gyantse is known for its astonishing chorten (Tibetan for stupa) or “Khumbum” (hall of 100,000 images) as it is locally called. This chorten is part of Palcho Monastery and was built in the early 1400s. Like the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu, the Gyantse Khumbum has Eyes. But, unlike those other 2 stupas, the Khumbum is an interactive, multi-terraced pyramid of chapel rooms teeming with statues and wall paintings of the Buddha, wrathful Tibetan deities, and other important figures from Tibetan folklore.  Although there are a couple of other chortens that still stand elsewhere in Tibet, there is none that compares to the exquisite artistry and “in situ” magnificence of the Gyantse Khumbun. The structure itself sits within the center of a walled old town. The wall runs along the rim of the small mountain above the town. The Khumbum contains 7 floors and one can walk up to the sixth floor and stare right at the Eyes of the Khumbum that stare out over Gyantse. The interesting difference between the Khumbum and other stupas built elsewhere in Asia is that the Khumbum allows you inside it — you can enter each room that burrows inside the structure.  Most other stupas are not inwardly accessible, and indeed were built for the specific purpose of encasing some relic of the Buddha, so they were never meant to be entered. But, the Khumbum sucks you inside room after room, each with a different motif and message. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a Mandala. It spirals upwards — each floor a square within circle — and one ascends in perfect cadence.  The path takes you into the center which is aloft and beats with consciousness.

Eyes of the Khumbum

There are 77 separate chapel rooms you can go inside as you walk up clockwise around each floor and escalate to the top. I had to go inside each of these rooms and it took me about 2-hours to complete the entire 6-floor circuit to the top floor. Each room was dark with no lights. I brought my flashlight and when I turned it on inside the room I either saw a mural painting, statue, or both.  All of these paintings and statues were created with extreme patience, skill, and brilliance. I was sad to learn that many of the statues were clay replicas because the originals had been destroyed during the liberation.  But, the murals — although some faded and worn — still evidenced the original brushstrokes by the monks who had made them.  What smacks you in the face about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is its pronounced use of the visual arts to convey the Dharma. Somewhere in the Tibetan tradition an emphasis was placed on learning how to transform the Dharma from something that was orally passed on, discussed, and contemplated into a visual (as well as musical) form of expression that was designed for a shared experience.

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

There is no doubt in my mind that some Tibetan monks had to be great artists as well. The frescoes, murals, and statues I saw in the Khumbum (and elsewhere in Tibet) were not works that were commissioned by the monastery for the laity to paint. Wealthy Tibetan patrons did provide money to the monasteries and all monasteries were ultimately supported by the Sangha, but it was the monks themselves that created such a vivid, beautiful artistic legacy. I can only  theorize that perhaps because the focus of the Mahayana school is on the “anyone can become a bodhisattva” message that this teleological thrust caused generation after generation of Tibetan monks to seek different ways to communicate the Dharma — beyond just the verbal.  The medium of choice of 700 years ago was painting and sculpting. While other Buddhist traditions have definitely created masterworks in their designs of Stupas, ironwork, paintings, and sculptures, the intricate mandala frescoes, thangkas (silk embroidered paintings), and statues of deities created in Tibet are so interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist practice that the efficacy of the Dharma would dramatically deflate if it was separated from the art that has long been used to sustain it.

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

The Palcho Monastery has different buildings built around the Khumbum with one temple built on an outcrop of the small mountain above it. I climbed to this temple and inside were frescoes of Mandalas that almost appeared to be a bird’s-eye view of the Khumbum. Each Mandala is like a fingerprint and is unique — no 2 Mandalas are ever alike. Each reflects the most serious mind and commitment to detail. They are rooted in geometric precision and serve as a roadmap for the viewer to follow as he contemplates the Dharma. These Mandalas are reference guides that one has to interpret in order to actively engage and ponder the specific teaching held within the painting.  When I stood at the terrace of this temple I could see the Khumbum below me and the old fort across from me on the opposite end of the town. The fort stood on top of a very tall hill. As I began to psyche myself for the long walk over to the fort, I looked down again at the Khumbum and experienced a funny thing. Its Eyes appeared to be looking up at me. I had already come face to face with these Eyes when I reached the top of the Khumbum itself and the Eyes had stared out straight ahead. But, from the vantage point of the temple located above the Khumbum, the Eyes now seemed to be lifted up and searching me for an answer to a question. I just remember that the words which popped into my head at that exact moment were, “I’m trying.”  Nothing more, but I felt the Eyes lower. It was a sensation that I can only describe as a gut-check. Lhasa was next. I had to get the mindset.

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