DEPICTING A HIGHER REALITY
Traditionally, thangka paintings were not only valued for their aesthetic beauty, but also for their use as aids in meditational practices. Practitioners use thangkas to develop a clear visualization of a particular religious deity, strengthening their concentration, and forging a link between themselves and the deity. Historically, thangkas were also used as teaching tools to convey the lives of various masters. A teacher would travel around giving teachings, carrying with him large thangka scrolls to illustrate his stories.
The figures shown in thangka paintings are usually depictions of visions that appeared to great spiritual masters at moments of realization, which were then recorded and incorporated into Buddhist scripture. The proportions are considered sacred, as not only are they exact representations of Buddhist deities, but also the visual expression of spiritual realizations that occurred at the time of a vision.
Thangka painting is thus a two-dimensional medium illustrating a multi-dimensional spiritual reality. Practitioners use thangkas as a sort of road map to guide them to an original insight as it was revealed to a master of meditation. This map must be accurate, and it is the responsibility of the artist to make sure it is so in order for a thangka to be considered genuine, or to be useful as a support for Buddhist practice, guiding one to the proper place.
Because thangkas are not simply the product of an artist’s imagination, but are as carefully executed as a blueprint drawing, the role of the artist is somewhat different than what we often associate it with in modern culture. Here the role of the artist becomes one of a medium or channel, who rises above his own mundane consciousness to bring a higher truth into this world. Therefore in order to ensure this truth remains intact, he must diligently adhere to all the correct guidelines.
Aspiring thangka artists must spend years studying the iconographic grids and proportions of different deities, and then master the technique of mixing and applying mineral pigments. At Norbulingka a three-year training program is offered to aspiring students. After completing their three year course most artists then join workshops, where they must complete an additional three years as apprentices before they are considered fully qualified artists.
To make a thangka, first a piece of canvas is stitched onto a wooden frame. It is prepared with a mixture of chalk, gesso, and base pigment, and rubbed smooth with a glass until the texture of the cloth is no longer apparent. The outline of the deity is sketched in pencil onto the canvas using iconographic grids, and then outlined in black ink. Powders composed of crushed mineral and vegetable pigments are mixed with water and adhesive to create paint. Some of the elements used are quite precious, such as lapis lazuli for dark blue. Landscape elements are blocked in and shading is applied using both wet and dry brush techniques. Finally, a pure gold paint is added, and the thangka is framed in a precious brocade boarder. A standard thangka in our collection, which is about 18 x 12 inches, takes an artist about six weeks to complete.
Aside from being an aid to spiritual practice, commissioning a thangka is considered a means of generating spiritual merit, and often if an individual is facing some kind of hardship, a teacher is consulted and recommends the creation of a thangka of a specific deity as a remedy. The artist then designs a thangka by referring to the measurements of deities detailed in the scriptures, following the prescription of the teacher.
For many years Norbulingka created only these specially commissioned thangkas, but as the interest in Tibetan Buddhism rapidly grew worldwide, they began to see a demand for more readily available pieces for customers who appreciated the beauty of Tibetan art but had less specific requirements. With this is mind, they created a signature Norbulingka Thangka Collection, which features many of the popular deities from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, that can be ordered with no wait time.
These days, it is becoming more and more rare to find genuine thangkas because of the length of time it takes to learn the skill and create a painting properly. However, through their apprenticeship program, Norbulingka is committed to preserving the skill of thangka painting in the traditional form for future generations.
Master Tenzin Norbu explains that thangkas are significant on three different levels: firstly, they preserve the spirit of Tibetan Buddhism, and aid practitioners on their individual path towards enlightenment. As such an ancient art form that is integrated so closely into Tibetan Buddhism, the practice of thangka painting also helps to preserve the unique Tibetan heritage. And finally, the art of thangka painting provides a good livelihood to many Tibetan artists, meanwhile instilling in them a sense of pride and knowledge of their culture and religion.