New Introduction for the Riverside Exhibition

John Brzostoski
© 1989

The art of Tibet is profound. Yet, in its complexity and multi-layered actualities, it has a deep simplicity which is the source of a natural joy. The roots of that joy are resolution of the battling aspects of a person's being. All dualities are confronted, and the resulting energy brings a basic serenity.

The art of Tibet is unique, arising out of sources seldom available elsewhere, and combining them into an original form where they come to flower. The blossoming of hybrid seeds and influences from India and Nepal became a distinct form. Afterwards, the various styles spread elsewhere, putting their imprint on the art of Mongolia and China.

The art of Tibet is religious, Take away the Buddhist connection and even in its secular art, (carved tea tables, rugs and jewelry) there would be a great void.

The art is magical, mystical mysterious and, strange as this sounds, matter of fact. Its ultimate purpose and underlying reason for existence is pragmatic. The mystery opens into a psychological-spiritual science unknown to others, thus appearing magical. What is misunderstood can be called mystical. The everyday reasons for this art in Tibet are the people's everyday beliefs, everyday Buddhism, and everyday hopes. At all levels of society, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is everything to the Tibetan people. There is no separation from daily activities. Religion is everywhere in evidence, in the fingering of malas (rosary-like strings of beads), the turning of prayer wheels, and the chanting, muttering, whispering of mantras (words of power, mental machines).

All this started with the words of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the enlightened one, which took more than a thousand years to reach Tibet from India, where they were first uttered in the Sixth Century B.C. They were brought there, to be firmly planted, by the Indian saint Padmasambhava in the Eighth Century A.D. From that time on, Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet, despite periods of persecution.

One of the early Buddhist kings, Song-Tsen Gampo, had recognized the importance of Buddhist teachings to pacify the country, and invited early teachers from the subcontinent. He had united his factionalized country, and wanted to show it an era of peace. With his two Buddhist wives, Princess Wen Cheng of China, who the T'ang emperor had reluctantly allowed to marry the powerful Tibetan neighbor, and Princess Trisun of Nepal, he inaugurated the Buddhist era. But it took Padmasambhava with his strength to get Buddhism to take root, by winning debates against the Bon priests, traveling all over the country, displaying miracles, teaching, and establishing the first monasteries.

In a few hundred years, the secular rulers fell aside, and the lineage of the first Dalai Lamas was established. They were both secular and religious rulers of Tibet henceforth. Under the Fifth Dalai Lama, most of the construction of the great Potala Palace was accomplished. It was named after a mountain far to the south where Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, lived, because the Dalai Lamas are considered to be incarnations of that Bodhisattva.

Examples of the earliest forms of Tibetan art are to be found far from temples and villages. In the mountains, along river trails, in places where people may or may not travel, one suddenly finds carvings; small, a few feet high, or large, thirty feet high or more. Sometimes there are words, sometimes images; huge bas-relief Buddhas or Goddesses, with shallow or deep cuts, all painted. There are walls of rock carved and painted with one mantra or another, but mostly AUM MANI PADME HUM. Always a surprise. Always in color. Mantras always come in color: AUM. MANI. PADME. HUM. All in colors. White letter. Yellow. Red. Blue. Green. Mantras must be recited in color. Sounds give forth colors after all.

AUM MANI PADME HUM is the national prayer of Tibet. It is said everywhere and is seen everywhere. For besides being embossed upon small hand-held cylinders to spin and on great metal drums outside the doors of gompas (monasteries), it is also printed upon pieces of cloth called prayer flags which flutter everywhere on strings stretching from building to building, or upon sticks atop the most remote mountain passes, where the winds shred them to pieces as they throw the words AUM MANI PADME HUM out into space. For the benefit of all beings; the words are cast on the wind for everyone.

These sorts of beliefs have been preserved because, through the centuries, Tibet was a country in a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It was aided in this isolation by its geographical position. One of the highest lands in the world, it is called the Land of the Snows for good reason. Travelers would first have to cross one great mountain range or another to reach Tibet. The Himalayas protect her to the south, the Karakorum to the west, vast frozen deserts to the northwest, the Tsaidam desert to the northeast near the salt lake Koko Nor, and the almost impassable mountains to the east, occupied by the fierce Tibetan warriors, the Kham-pas.

It was only the Twentieth Century which brought modern armies into these territories and made Tibet vulnerable. The British invaded successfully in the first decade of this century. But due to their own political confusion at home, they left without any benefit to themselves from this incursion into Tibet. The Chinese, inspired by the success of the English, invaded Tibet in 1910, but their presence there did not last long. However, in 1951 they came back as a conquering army. The Tibetans could not drive them out this time, and in 1959, after bloody battles in Lhasa and elsewhere, the Dalai Lama escaped to India, where he has since lived, with the 100,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile. The United Nations condemned the Chinese for genocide in Tibet, as Tibetan guerillas, the Kham-pas, continue to fight, striking from secret camps in northern Nepal. Then, late in 1973, all the secret help in supplies and equipment from the United States was stopped when Nixon went to Peking to reestablish relations with the Chinese, and the Kham-pas ended their struggle.

Meanwhile, the Cultural Revolution, which allowed the Chinese to run amok destroying "all that was old," played havoc in Tibet. Tens of thousands of monasteries were looted and destroyed, people were tortured, imprisoned, and murdered.

In recent years, Tibet has been opened to visitors. The long-period when religion was officially forbidden was declared over, and the remaining temples were allowed to have a few monks again. Tibet was now considered an autonomous province of China, at one third of its previous size. All the appointed leaders were Chinese, and all good jobs were given to Chinese, who were being resettled everywhere in Tibet. Yet, to this day, the Tibetan people still do not recognize the Chinese as their rulers.

Due to these decades of turmoil, much Tibetan art has traveled to the West. We may never have seen it otherwise.

Tibetan art takes some getting used to. For instance, Tibetan sculpture is frontal. That is, it is to be seen only from the front; its full value is not dependent upon viewing it from many angles. The reason for this is that it is, for all practical purposes, a painting. Or, to be more accurate, a vision; a three-dimensional vision. This relates to the internal visualization of an original mediator. It is the same as a thangka (scroll painting), to be seen from the front. It has its mantra knowledge on the part of the viewer and other requirements.

This is true even in the ideals of Tibetan architecture. Some buildings become established into a similar scheme of dimensional relocation on the part of the aware participant. Others are merely incomplete in this function. Again, the architecture is a schema, a conceptual construct, a mental map, a pathway, wherein the person is enclosed in three dimensional memories. He remembers what is to his right, his left, to his back as he moves forward. Even lesser buildings do this for him by having particular murals painted on particular walls. For example, when entering a temple he always has to pass the images of the four guardian kings, all on the front entrance wall. Although these paintings are indicating ideas, as if the viewer were facing in four different directions (north, south, east, west) simultaneously, he knows he is really only facing in one direction. Thus, there can be meditative head "massages" in the simple act of entering a building.

Also, relating to the mantra usage, different parts of a "real" building will be understood to be the points of power for different syllables. Walk differently and you recite differently. This could be in relation to images painted or place in at space, a series of understood complete mantras leading to the main image or deity of that particular temple or chapel. No matter if the visitor does not know the spots, he will still know the deities, and automatically "pray" appropriate prayers when he reaches their images. It is a physical sound-producing journey; half in the dark to better "imagine" what you see.

This is not to be confused with the simpler act of circumambulation. In this walking-around-revered-things, one walks around a building, like the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace, a pile of stones carved with the mantra to Chenrezig (AUM MANI PADME HUM), or passes to the left of a mani stone wall) looking to the right); or circles the main image of a temple; or moves about the shrine-memorial of a great teacher (a chorten).

In this circling, the object of attention is kept to the right. Our awareness is kept to the right side, eyes look to the right. It is a subtle form of "right side awareness," eye-yoga. It causes us to glance to the right, a happening of right-side awareness that is considered very valuable for consciousness-elevating, and mind-evolving. The telling of the beads, the mala, the spinning of hand-held prayer wheels (also clockwise), full of the Bodhisattva mantra (AUM MANI PADME HUM) while you are doing all of this adds to its efficacy.

Similarly, the basis for Tibetan painting is religious. And one of the major methods of Tibetan religion was and is meditation. In the attempt to change, to overcome the bad effects of karma (the circumstances and residues of actions in previous lives), one had to undo that past, then create the environment for improvement, then perfection of being. This took concentrated mental work in various forms. The road to buddhahood went through stages of development, with various levels of many types of consciousness. These were not to be found as gifts either from gods or buddha. One had to do the work oneself, create these levels of mind oneself, by wrestling with what had to be undone and striving for great conscious realities. Isolation and meditation were frequent recipes for attaining any results. The recitation of formulae of various syllables (mantras), seemingly mystical but actually mental machines, played important roles. From ancient Indian Buddhism came this science of sounds which awakened special psychic centers, stimulating the invocation of various beings, (so-called gods, etc.) which were truly aspects of one's own mind. Some of these were beautiful, some horrendous. All were energetic and useful to further development, used as directed by one's teacher. These mantras were words that became the names of these "beings" brought about by self. The proper persistent recitation of these sounds brought them into being.

But what does this have to do with art?

The sounds themselves are mantras, and their successful performance brought about a vision (a yantra) that was altogether light. Thus, sound caused light. The sound was the invoked being, the light was the image of that being. If a yogi, or mediator, was alone in some dark room, cell or cave, reciting AUM MANI PADME HUM, and was successful in his concentration, he would see Chenrezi in colors.

Any mediator who did the chanting would see the same image, even if he did not know what to expect. Different mantras brought different images, but "standardized." AUM MANI PADME HUM brought Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. AUM HRIH HA HA HRIM HUM PHAT! Brought the dark deity Samvara, in conjugation with his goddess. Now, that could be frightening, and it would take a little effort not to lose it, once invoked.

Mantra stabilized yantra, and yantra stabilized mantra. Each maintained the other. To what purpose? The invocation of a deity, ultimately, meant the becoming of that deity, the consciousness of that deity, the mind of that deity. AUM MANI PADME HUM was a transforming series of sounds to become those sounds, to become the colors and energies of the Bodhisattva who was full of mercy for all living beings, to become that compassionate oneself. A good thing too.

But what about art?

Art was not necessary for the meditators who could do the mantric visualization.

But there were others of lesser talent who could not, from scratch go through that series of sound invocations to such a goal. But they wished to reach that goal, and, encouraged by a lama-teacher, could do exactly that, with a little help. Those who had done it the hard way helped by painting images of what they had seen. Thus these images could be contemplated, with the sounds of the mantra AUM MANI PADME HUM for instance and it would go easier. A bit easier; never easy. After seeing the paintings (art) sculpture (art) etc., these practitioners would try to remember the images and to mediate upon them, the remembrance in the mind's eyes being a little "cleaner" than that of the paint in front of them. Probably the mental colors being a little more radiant as well. Radiant was the color. Pure light. No shadows. Mental best.

It is impossible to lay down here the complete principles of the functioning of Tibetan art. However, first there was a personal vision, with the intensity and placement of the colors to indicate the corresponding consciousness. Since it was dynamic in the meditation process, any split second section of it might be slightly different from another. Thus, even fixed in paint, the images are not all identical from painting to painting. However, those people who had gone through this process would recognize in other examples of art that which they themselves had been unable to depict. One artist/meditator might use orange for a particular sensation, but recognize the same thing in someone else's use of a dazzling gold-leaf, which he himself may not have been able to use.

A few things cannot be depicted at all. In such a "dark-cave" visualization, one might understand that a color that appears is "lightning," or another some deity, although it is only a bit of color. Some might say that the color is a symbol for the deity/subject, but for the mediator, it is that subject. Thus almost abstract painting can also represent, or at best, trigger, certain consciousness responses. That is how it has to be for a true yantra, which is invisible lines of movement. It is similar to the star of David (which is a true yantra in India), to be understood as an optic racetrack with the eye moving along those delineated pathways, right, left, up, down, etc. Those eye-movements, with or without mantras, with or without paint, could invoke a deity.

Here it is Mahakala, the dark Protector of Buddhism, the energetic consciousness that destroys obstructions to becoming awake; our own egotistical faults.

In looking at a thangka, it would be best to know the mantra of the presiding image. If it is not known, and you have the original painting in front of you, turn it over, and on e back will be written the mantra, vertically, upon the figure in question. The ability to read Tibetan will be required. However, frequently that is not necessary even if you are looking at a reproduction within a book. There is a "generic," a generalized mantra, as effective as any long particular one. It is AUM AH HUM. It cannot be translated into anything, nor does it need to be. If you looked at the back of the painting you would find that the spots where the syllables are written correspond to the forehead, throat and heart of the image on the front. If there are many images, then there would be many AUM AH HUM writings. What is to be understood by all of this is that those sounds emanate from the forehead (between the eyes), throat and heart of the painted image. AUM: Between the eyes, AH: Throat, and HUM: Heart.

Now, we know that images do not make sounds. Only we can do that. Thus, in looking at the painting, with sounds coming from between eyes, throat, etc. we must realize that the painting is a mirror. What we see is ourselves, and the invoked sounds AUM, AH, HUM are coming from our eyebrows, throat and heart, and we are that image, with its level of consciousness, powers and abilities.

If this doesn't surprise, startle, and almost frighten you when you do it early on, then you didn't do it right. No, not from your nose, throat and navel! Try again.




Good! Now look at the Bodhisattva and become identical with the consciousness of compassion for all living beings.

Tibetan art is art with a purpose, a transformation purpose.

First the individual, then the world of beings.


HOME || John Brzostoski || Unbecoming || Links