The Buddhas task as a teacher
could not even begin until works of art had opened the
peoples imagination to the revelation of new perceptions.
So we find that in the Buddhist scriptures almost every
discourse is preceded by some sort of miracle, some dramatic
revelation of an extraordinary perception to stimulate
the peoples imaginations. After the Buddhas
death those who knew him began to make icons of his liberating
presence, although at first it was considered that no
human representation could do justice to his memory, so
that symbols such as the wheel (of the Law), or the trees
(of spiritual enlightenment) were used.
By the time Buddhism came to Tibet
in the seventh century AD, however, the artistic expression
of the Mahayana, or Universal Vehicle, had reached considerable
heights of inspiration. Sakyamuni Buddha, various cosmic
Buddhas, magnificent female and male Bodhisattvas, all
were portrayed in splendid paradise-like settings. And
with the development of Tantric Buddhism the archetypal
imagery went more deeply into the unconscious mind to
uncover other enlightening possibilities, both terrifying
The earliest surviving Tibetan images
date from the ninth century AD, and from that time until
the present a wealth of magnificent painting and sculpture
survives which has served both as the focus of meditation
visualisations for many generations of Buddhist adepts,
as well as educational illustrations for ordinary Tibetan
people. Tragically, since the Chinese occupation began
in 1949, many thousands of temples with their splendid
wall paintings and magnificent sculptures have been destroyed,
so that today there are probably many more beautiful Tibetan
works of art in Western museums and private collections
than presently exist in Tibet.
Magnificent examples of Tibetan temple
wall paintings still exist, however, both in Tibet itself
(Tsaparang, the Gyantse Kumbum), in the Tibetan cultural
areas of Indian Ladakh Alchi), and Himachal Pradesh (Tabo),
in Nepal (Mustang) and in Bhutan (Paro Dzong).
However, the painting
medium best known outside Tibet is the thangka, or scroll
painting. Usually painted on cotton cloth, more rarely
on silk, colours are traditionally made from minerals
as well as vegetable dyes. Before application they are
de-saturated in varying degrees in lime and mixed with
boiled gum Arabic. These stone colours maintain
their intensity so well that many old thangkas still retain
striking colours. Today, Tibetan artists also use modern
Thangkas are traditionally mounted
in frames of silk brocade with a pole or batten at the
top and bottom so that it can be easily hung. Since it
is also easily rolled up, the thangka can be stored away
or readily transported from once place to another. Itinerant
lamas used them as icons of personal devotion and to sanctify
tents in which they held teachings of Buddhist doctrine.
They are also used as effective teaching aids. In most
Tibetan homes the thangka, together with small bronze
images, is an integral part of the family altar and a
vehicle of visual dharma.
Manuscripts also are often adorned
with miniature paintings, as are their wooden covers,
and sets of initiation cards, called tsakali, which are
another medium of miniature painting.
Metal, clay, stucco, wood, stone,
and butter are all used in the creation of sculptural
images, yet by far the best known of these is metal, since
small, portable, bronze images of a great variety of meditation
deities are most frequently encountered. Nevertheless,
clay and stucco have been used since ancient times, particularly
in the creation of very large images installed in monasteries
and temples. Wood is also widely used, intricately carved
for entrances to temples and for interior pillars and
in covers for scriptures in monastery libraries.
Most portable images, however, are
made from metal, usually bronze, but occasionally silver
or gold. Bronzes are usually made by the lost wax
process, where a wax image is created, then coated
with a clay based mould which is subsequently baked allowing
the wax to melt and drain away, replacing it with molten
metal. The finished image is often then gilded and adorned
with precious and semi precious stones. Metal images are
also sometimes made by the repousse method, where copper,
or less commonly silver or gold, is hammered out into
the required shape from `the reverse side.
Works of art are usually commissioned,
either by monasteries or lay patrons, and their execution
generally follows strict canonical rules as to proportions,
symbols and colours, in accordance with artistic manuals.
Tibetan art is largely anonymous,
and this custom of artistic anonymity is grounded in the
Buddhist belief in working toward the elimination of the
individual ego. The Tibetan attitude to a work of art
is that when it is successfully completed it has an existence
of its own and an inherent power to help the viewer come
to spiritual realisation. It ceases to be the property
of the artist when it leaves his studio.
The form given to a painted or sculpted
image follows a clear and well defined iconography set
out in the appropriate texts, whilst artists manuals
illustrate the strict measures to be observed in achieving
correct proportion and balance. The Tibetan artist, like
his Indian counterpart, is not free to improvise on his
personal concepts of the appearance of an individual deity
but is required to work within a well defined structure.
In the tantric art of Tibetan Buddhism, benign, wrathful,
serene or terrifying deities all illustrate an aspect
of the Buddha mind, or the potential to be found in each
of us, so that the artist projects for us archetypal images
from deep within our subconscious, inviting us to contemplate
those aspects of our being which usually remain hidden.
For the meditation practitioner, such images are models
for the process of visualisation, where the adept develops
the ability, through stabilised concentration and cultivated
inner vision, to visualise the deity in all its phenomenal
detail and then absorb this vision into him/herself and
so absorb the spiritual qualities particular to that deity.
These are a complex and uniquely Tibetan
concept and are usually constructed by teams of monks
for a festival or religious event.
They are not entirely made from butter,
however, being constructed on frames of wood and leather,
to which are applied barley flour and butter dough. They
are then painted. Some were truly gigantic being as high
as a three storey building. After the ceremony they are
destroyed. In this they are like sand mandalas such as
the well known Kalachakra Sand Mandala, painstakingly
constructed over many days from different coloured grains
of sand before being swept away at the end of the ceremony.
The symbolism behind the destruction of such works is
based on the illusory nature of things, even those we
Arts & Craft
Although Tibet had no political ties
with China after the end of the Yuan Dynasty (mid 14th
century), there were nevertheless frequent visits of monks
and lamas to China from the great Tibetan monasteries.
This enhanced trade between the two countries and added
greatly to the monasteries wealth, at the same time
providing a channel through which cultural and artistic
influences enriched Tibetan life.
Silk brocades and richly worked robes,
pearls and precious stones, ritual vessels and incense
burners, gilt images and lacquered goods, all found their
way into the homes of the aristocracy and into the monasteries.
Tibetans produced earthenware, often of fine quality,
but porcelain from China, especially since the Ming period,
was also highly prized.
The Tibetan love of exuberant decoration
resulted in everyday items being produced with wonderful
embellishments. Nearly every item used by Tibetans was
fashioned in this highly decorative way. Ink pots, tinder
pouches, knives, teapots, storage vessels, all were decorated
lavishly in characteristic ways.
Tibetan artisans are skilful people,
and they have long produced large quantities of ornate
and intricate silver and gold jewellery, often set with
coral, turquoise and other precious stones. Carpet weaving
for domestic and monastic use is another ancient craft,
and carpets are popular products from refugee communities
Carved and painted wooden tables and
cabinets are still in high demand as are silver lined
wooden bowls for butter tea. Crafts and decorative arts
enormously enriched Tibetan life and penetrated all levels
Arts in Exile
In Dharamsala, the Centre for Tibetan
Art and Crafts was established in 1977 under the auspices
of His Holiness the Dalai Lamas Charitable Trust.
Its primary purpose is not only to preserve essential
areas of the endangered Tibetan culture but to inspire
fresh enthusiasm and creativity in Tibetan artistic expression.
Selection of students is made on the
basis of both aptitude and economic background with priority
given to those applicants who are particularly needy.
Most of the crafts produced are exported through the offices
of the Charitable Trust.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
(LTWA) was established in Dharamsala in 1971 as a repository
for ancient cultural objects, books and manuscripts from
Tibet. LTWA now has eight departments: Research and Translation,
Publications, Oral History and Film Documentation, Reference
(reading room), Tibetan Studies, Tibetan manuscripts,
Museum, School for Thangka Painting and Wood Carving.
LTWA has a team of Tibetan scholars engaged in research,
translation, instruction and the publication of books.
Since its founding the Library has
acquired a reputation as an international centre for Tibetan
Studies. To date, more than five thousand scholars and
research students from all over the world have benefited
from this unique educational institution. LTWA also offers
regular classes in Buddhist philosophy.