Thangka Lessons from an Artist

I wanted to write about my visit to the Norbulingka Palace, but it wasn’t very memorable. It was a nice place to visit, with well maintained and beautiful gardens. However, I don’t have any pictures left of the place, and without that there isn’t much to write about.

So instead I’ll write about what happened after we visited the palace. In Shanghai, we have a Buddhist friend who holds exhibitions of Thangka – pictures of various histories and buddhist figures painted on cloth and silk. She knows some artists in Tibet, so we decided to spend our free time getting in touch with them.

We found the place hidden away in a market street – a small art exhibition with a small tea drinking area above it. We introduced ourselves as knowing a mutual friend and they invited us to join them. Only one of them could speak decent English so I spent most of my time talking to him. He told me he was an artist and that he had an exhibition in London coming up which, sadly, he couldn’t attend himself.

After a short while most of the artists had left, except for one that Yi was talking to. He was a Thangka artist and he explained what Thangka was and why he painted them. Thangka are holy paintings that are meant to be prayed to in similar ways to Buddha statues. He explained that he would never take a commission unless he knew the painting was going to be used.

I asked him about the Swastika and its meaning in Buddhism – I wanted to know what one of the most demonised symbols in the West meant to him. He confirmed something that I had always thought to be a myth – that the direction of the swastika did make a difference, and that the reverse swastika was the one used by the Nazis.

We also asked about several symbols we had seen around Tibet, and he told us that these were the Eight Auspicious Symbols: the Sea Shell, the Infinite Knot, the Twin Fish, the Lotus Flower, the Umbrella, the Vase, the Wheel and the Banner. As he talked about each, he sketched them out with great accuracy.

Eventually he had to leave as well, and we had to get back to our tour group. We finished our tea and left.