What is a thangka?
Thangkas, from the Tibetan tangro meaning something rolled up, are scrolls that were used as teaching tools, as visualization aids by religious practitioners. A thangka painting is not just a pretty picture, it's not art for art's sake. It has deep spiritual meaning, it's a visual representation of the meditations you might learn from great masters. It offers "liberation through sight."
Thangkas are also the end product of meditation: when a monk sits down to chant and meditate, these deities come to him [in meditation]. You could chant the mantra to Tara or you could see her as a vision. What you visualize is the divinity, a representation of the human mind, of our imagination.
As a painter of thangkas, how are you breaking new ground?
For centuries, the spiritual significance of thangkas was a guarded secret; I want to make it acessible to all. It's no longer the property of Buddhism alone but of the whole human race. It is not just Tibetan, or Nepalese, or Buddhist--it's art that explains different divine energies.
For example, in the thangka world, I found an image that describes maternal energy. For the Buddhist it may be something else. For me, it is the image of mother's love: it has a 1000 arms, 1000 eyes, 1000 hands. Rather than making it religious, I make it accessible to ordinary people. In this modern age, the human mind has evolved, all civilizations, all religions have to come together. That's the only way.
I had a passion to explain, I visualized these images--as a young child, daydreaming, my head was full of these images. Then in 1981, when I was 18, I started painting and making a living out of it.
Thangkas are part of the Tibetan Buddhist heritage. But you're a Nepalese Hindu.
I'm Hindu by birth, brought up Roman Catholic by Jesuit missionaries, ordained as a Buddhist monk and married to an Irish Protestant. In any case, thangkas evolved from Nepalese patas (painted religious books). Nepal and Tibet share a lot of culture. A Nepalese princess married a Tibetan king who became one of the first Dalai Lamas; she brought our culture into Tibet--she is believed to be the original Green Tara (a bodhisattva of compassion). The oldest temple in Tibet was made by the Nepalese.
Is it true that you were identified as a reincarnate lama and inherited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery?
When I was 6, some Tibetan monks came to our house and said. "You're the 17th reincarnation of the abbot of our monastery." They brought me rugs and silver, paintings and old turquoise, and said, "This is yours from your past life. The monastery in Tibet was destroyed by the Chinese. But you're born again to fulfill your karma." My father was a powerful government official who did not believe them--Tibetans weren't respected in Nepal.
How do you feel about that monastery?
I have no monastery. If I had a monastery, I'd be occupied with its rituals. In this life, I want my monastery to have no walls.
Talk about the art school you founded.
I train artists in my school in Kathmandu. First, the students learn to make colors, mix paints, do the shading, the details, fill them in. After five years, they learn to paint faces. To a trained artist, I can say, "I want a Green Tara here." They understand; I don't have to explain further. I'm a creative director. I go in and make changes, corrections. I don't do the actual painting now.
My intention was to focus the attention, to overpower reality so that you'd have no choice but to be stunned. My dream is to create a building and paint figures, like the Sistine Chapel.
A Buddhist temple?
I wouldn't call it that. To categorize is to separate. At the end of the day, all deities are the same.
Do you pray to a specific divinity or to a formless being?
In the past, [I prayed] to many forms and shapes but as I get older, these shapes and figures have turned into energies. For example, the Green Tara now represents mother energy for me, not just as the figurative Green Tara but the mother who protects you from all natural disasters like insurance companies claim to do. I call her the Spiritual Insurance Company that protects from fire, thieves, ghosts, etc.
What do the many-tongued, monsterlike demons in thangkas represent?
The "demons" are wrathful emanations of peaceful deities. For example, when [the compassionate bodhisattva] Tara manifests wrathfully, it is to destroy all ignorance. These are energies, not demons, that date back to Tibet's ancient religions. They are dharma protectors. Yamantaka, for example, is a fierce-looking figure with 18 bodies. He is a wrathful emanation of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of knowledge, who is the color of the setting sun and holds the flaming sword that cuts through all ignorance. Yamantaka is the destroyer of death.
Bodhisattvas are defined as enlightened beings who postpone entering nirvana and instead choose to be reborn to help others. For me, a bodhisattva is a quality: If you develop your mind so that every thought is for the well-being of the human race, then you're a Boddisatva. It's a quality of enlightenment, of focusing not on oneself but on others. If you're aware of death, realize that everyone will die, that life is not permanent. I'd say to people who see my paintings, come and just be, be in this reality, this energy, this moment; look inside, close your eyes and find the divine within.
Are your paintings controversial?
Yes, for orthodox Buddhists. Each of many different sects has its own way of painting deites. I'm not following that. You can't box energy. My paintings are for everyone. That's why I give them modern names in English e.g. Active Compassion, Conqueror of Death, Mother of the Universe. I want to be inclusive so that these energies are accessible to all. Because there is a message here, there is knowledge in these tangkas. There are many paths, and the world is demanding a new path. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has universalized his teaching and made it available to all. We need that now. Boundaries are breaking down.
What's your next project?
I'd like to create a spiritual reality, not just paintings but 3-dimensional mandalas and buddhas to bring this philosophy back to life. A mandala is a sacred palace in the center of which a deity dwells. A 3-D palace, where one doesn't have to meditate to enter but one actually enters. A physical space where one can walk in and look around and see what one sees in a tangka. I'd use architects, builders and carvers to create a sacred space. I need to raise funds for it.
My next lot of paintings will be thousands of buddhas. In the past, there was only one buddha but now, I want to see a buddha or a Tara in each person. I want to see spiritual light shine in every eye. Most of this light has been dimmed by careers, greed, anger, competition. Everything that exists in the marketplace has taken away this light of the mind, the love of the human being. I'm trying to awaken love with my art. It is necessary now.