T H E A R T S
Until the mid 20th century the organization and government of Tibet was dominated by its religious outlook. This meant that over time the country had produced a remarkable number of highly accomplished scholars and mystics, a corpus of tens of thousands of volumes of literary works and a wealth of visual art that was explicitly intended to help raise the spiritual practitioner's level of realization.
At the time of its eclipse, Tibet was one of the few countries in the world whose establishment gave higher priority to spiritual matters over material development. The art of Tibet reflected this. Art evolved out of and focused on this religious milieu. The only art that could be called secular was to be found in the embellishment of furniture and interior decoration, but even this employed the style and motifs used in the background of religious paintings.
Many people nowadays look at Tibetan art and see it as something that artists simply reproduce on the basis of models from the past. They wonder why traditional Tibetan art is not a vessel for contemporary Tibetan artistic inspiration. The answer is that religious art does not arise from the same source of inspiration as secular art.
While the latter tends to express an individual’s interpretation of the universal human condition, religious art draws on experience rooted in meditation and spiritual realization. The deities and other figures portrayed in Tibetan religious art generally represent images that have appeared in the visions of great practitioners, therefore they cannot be modified by ordinary beings, who draw their inspiration from everyday experience. If they are to retain their spiritual value, reappraisal and adaptation of these works can only be done on the basis of the visions or realization of contemporary practitioners or yogis corresponding to those of earlier masters.
The goal of Buddhist practice is the attainment of spiritual realization that frees beings from the bonds of cyclic existence. The purpose of Buddhist art, therefore, is to provide support for that realization by representing objects of meditation that serve as sources of inspiration.
This why Tibetans refer to such works of art as supports for religious practice. In order to fulfil such a purpose, the work of art must comply with the defined characteristics of size and color described in sacred texts and depicted in proportional grids specific to both the 2 and 3 dimensional aspects of every deity.
A work of religious art can be viewed on several levels. Simply on the level of conventional appearance, it is a thing of beauty which conveys some spiritual qualities that edify those who see it. On a more profound level, it becomes a support for spiritual practice. It imparts to the meditator inspirational forces imbued in it by the artist, and which are sealed into it by the rituals that are done once it is complete.
These qualities are further enhanced by the practitioners, who have subsequently focused on the work in prayer and meditation. The spiritual quality that a practitioner accesses in a work of art by focusing attention on it becomes a support for his or her path to enlightenment.
This is why a certain reverence is reserved for older statues or paintings and those that have been the objects of meditation of highly realized beings. The older a work, the more it will have become suffused with the accumulated power of having been the focus of practitioners' respect and devotion.
As subsequent practitioners encounter it, it becomes an object of increasing inspiration to them too. A natural process of enhancement takes place, whereby the image that is a source of inspiration to spiritual practice is endowed with additional mystique, because of the exalted practitioners with whom it is associated.
Here at Norbulingka, we create new works in the prescribed way, so that they possess the attributes necessary to become such an object of inspiration for those who view it and take it as a support for their own spiritual practice. Paintings, appliquéd images and statues are made strictly according to the stipulated proportions, employing the colors particular to each figure.
Statues are then filled with mantras printed on rolled up strips of yellow paper, while the figures in appliqué and painted thangkas are inscribed on the reverse side with seed-syllables. Ultimately these works of art are not only beautiful in their rendering, but also incorporate those ineffable qualities that make them appropriate supports for Buddhist spiritual practice.