The Key to the Art of Tibet

John Brzostoski
© 2000

The Buddhist art of Tibet goes back more than 1200 years. Its forms, native and inherited from India and Nepal, have gone through many changes but have remained constant in one way. It is a functional art which is so tied to spiritual practices, magic, and medicine that there is no separation of art on one hand and prayers or prescriptions on the other. If it is decorative, that is incidental. If it is narrative with seeming "souvenir" ties with Buddhas, saints or great teachers, that is merely pleasant preaching. Constructed -- rather, born -- within the forms of paintings and sculptures are organic devices that trigger internal processes, that reveal startlingly pure realities.

These are not designs for the glorification of one theology, but audio-visual biological machines. Here, the mind manipulates itself, conquers itself, and mind/body accomplishes whatever it wishes. Happily, that wish grows in regard to the concerns of all living creatures, and then catapults itself onto an even broader path of being.

Blindness or Vision -- that is the point. That is the essential area of choice and activity, resolve and consequence, of Tibetan Buddhist art. As peculiar as this sounds, Tibet's art is only a semi-visual arena. There the demons of their culture and insanities of ours are confronted full force, face to face, win or lose. This art is a battleground for the fulfillment of the human mind, and anchoring of reality in a universe of chaos.

This was done through individual psychophysical spiritual practices, so- called meditations, which involve self-discipline, yogic postures, isolation, and mantra recitation. All were dedicated toward a goal of insight, which was profound, rooted deep in the nervous system.

As a result, different visionary by-products were had. When the consciousness changed and a particular byproduct appeared, with special color-light patterns accompanied by sounds, what was "seen" was the mark of the success of the yogic body. It was a color-twin, a mirror to the mind/body's accomplishment. Different mantras, AUM HRI HA HA HRIM HUM PHAT or AUM MANI PADME HUM, would gain different visionary results. A primordial psycho-physical entity, sometimes called a god, would be invoked. But in truth none were called, none arrived. It was the meditator himself who would become, or reveal, that aspect of himself. He reached an activated radiant body system which thought and felt in the manner of "god" or "bodhisattva," as the case may have been.

Whomsoever did it, the mantra efforts would result in these "internal" images and mandalas. These appeared as partially-visual results, changeable, fluctuating, but of the same order each time. Differences only manifested when the attempt was made to put these visions down in paint for others. And for others it had to be done, since the original act was a rare accomplishment. The various differences in similar paintings were due to split-second slices of a moving event. Also its dynamic aspect had to be indicated in choosing one phenomenon over another to portray.

Sometimes the visionary lama would paint it himself. Sometimes he would guide and instruct an artist under his care. Frequently he would write a manual instructing verbally the do-it-yourself visualization.

Even with the visions "materialized," mantra recitation was necessary, for this was a sound-light activity. One person after another would try to arrive at the same visionary reality. The art was an aid to this end. However, only with certain body effort (mantras etc.) would the total state within be produced.

Seeing the image allows one to enter the painting, which acts as a special mirror to the mind-body. In this manner, it is a little easier, an opening for those who follow, those persons of the critical initial breakthrough. Art-wise, this makes for many similar paintings in Tibet. Sometimes foolish curators say that many works of Tibetan art are copies. And in some ways they are, but in truth, they are all originals, since the artists went back to verify the experience. Anyone can feel this -- it strikes at a common core in us all. We may be puzzled by the identity of figures, but never by this unspoken meaning of flaming blossoms or explosions of rainbows. Water is water; fire is fire; sun and moon; mountains and meadows; dreams and nightmares. There are no puzzles. Some objects are closed except to Buddhists and those who will study their iconography. But that is the parochial portion of this art, and is not the prime experience and foundations. One is Buddhist alone, the other, the world's.

The near-symmetrical formal constructs of many paintings reveal this melong (mirror) quality. They mirror the near-symmetry of our bodies, and this is felt. We can move into them due to this. However, the best revelations, emotionally and spiritually, come only if we know the mantras, since these paintings must be events of sound and light. What is the prayer for this one or that one? Such and such?

This is a problem not easily overcome. With the appropriate mantra the mirror-viewer will genuinely be connected, for sight will become vision in the company of mantra. And this vision means a "new" or different consciousness-being mind-body for the once mere onlooker.

But there are too many images, too many mantras to match! What is a Westerner to do?

Be patient. In the Tibetan tradition they have an answer. It is the prayer AUM AH HUM -- a generic all-purpose mantra, so to speak. It is written on the reverse side of paintings, AUM behind the forehead, AH at the throat, and HUM at the heart. The viewer recites this to himself with the sounds being understood to come from the forehead, throat and heart of the image, but also his own forehead AUM throat AH heart AH, since the painting is a mirror, and that is his forehead AUM throat AH and heart HUM. This will help a great deal in the accomplishment of the activation of that electric-mind circuit.

Too complicated? Well, ancient lamas have anticipated that too. They have pulled back the verbs which blind us to our own internal raging fire. This pulls the ground from under us, with only limited sounds for reality. AUM. AH. HUM.

AH to hold onto. The burning metal AH. Oh! The fire! But in its joining we burn not. We melt, we merge, and out of it comes liquid intelligence. A hard comprehension, like a floating continent's surface. As if, a millennium later, factual civilizations solidify. But we know under it, under it -- AH. It moves, dives and rises hot; burning water, lifts and cracks; hot liquid fire. All forms, colors of the mind, shapes of concepts, have the memory of AH, the mark of AH, the absolute of it AH.

Thus all Tibetan artists deal with vision, not visions, although it is easier to speak of the latter. The former is the memory of the unseen, the joining of pure sight with convenient concepts. The whiteness of the goddess Tara is only white. She is young, female and motherly. Neither white nor female are symbols. Their joining is the place of unknown memory, as if from a lost treasure house of the spirit.

AH is a necessity -- a memory of, as if from a previous life. This art becomes a place of rebirth. AH But not of old somebodies, but of "another," with all present distortions of being shrugged off. The best rebirth AH is one with no one's distortions reborn AH. This is not Buddhist talk. It is not Freud or Jung. It is not double-talk. It is not talk at all.

Do you remember? It is a kin to the paintings (AH). That syllable, that apparently senseless vowel is the key. AH. Say it! Dead pages produce nothing. AH! Do it! Then glance about and look at the world. AH! Again! See the world change, or at least your view of it. It is glorious, glorious, bathed in light. The room is cleaner than you remembered. Why? Because of a simple point; you are remembering something AH at the same moment that you are looking at it. This is not your normal eye or frame of mind.

Is this religious? Is it art? Who cares? Is this Tibetan Buddhist? Yes, but Orthodox Russian or Atheist Pacifist as well. Does the world become different? Who knows? But it continues to appear so, while your "changed" mind delights in itself and its company.

Can this happen without Tibetan Buddhist art? Probably -- we've all tasted it. But the Tibetan Buddhists go out of their way to AH explore and reveal this AH to us and pruned down the necessary "viewing-mantra" to one syllable. Now depending upon the tradition one follows, it could be EH, or EVAM etc. On these pages, we will offer you the syllable AH, following Tibetan Buddhists who were once called 'Bro-pa (or white hats, as compared to the red hats and yellow hats of Central Tibet).

The AH is understood to be the seed syllable that creates all other sounds. For example, AUM (often misspelled as the famous OM) grows from it. Thus, if all sounds are born there, the recitation of a series of long, slow AHs will cover any deficiencies of secret knowledge. Try looking at Tibetan art with AH upon your lips or AH in your mind. See if you don't comprehend it all better.

These words, here set down, end a great deal of trouble. They short-cut out a great deal of talking/teaching and put you in a position to do it yourself. Do what? Meet the living images of Tibet, terrifying or compassionate, goddesses or Buddhas. But remember, this art is a mirror. And with that mirror one must be watchful. This is not child's play. It is about fire. Not the fire of something burning, but primordial fire itself. It is about the liquid core of the earth, the red-hot magma that is the mover beneath consciousness, the Himalayas of the mind, as molten rock, steaming logic.

It is about that transforming water which becomes holy in all basic human experiences, illuminating in the darkness, and guiding as a consequence by revealing a lighted path which was not there a moment before.

This is not to preach gods, angels, spirits, or Buddhas. Those are supplementary words about this treasure -- this innate faculty of expanded and embracing mind, brought to awareness by the art of being alive as opposed to the walking dead, brought to us by the artist-shaman who knows the terrors of the brilliantly perceived, and who skillfully leads us. He takes us down into the abyss which we recognize as the substratum of our everyday thoughts. Here, the Tibetan lama-artist takes us carefully with color and sounds, orchestrating our journey of eye-nerve joinings of synapses. It reads as security. Then he steps back. We also experience the abyss, but transcend it while helping others escape it through us. All this can come with our participation in looking carefully, slowly, with AH watchfulness.


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