Let The Chips Fall Where They May
The Buddhist paintings the Tibetans make are called thankas. They are done in an opaque tempera, with mineral pigments, on canvas. They are not stretched over wood bars and then framed, like our canvases, but are sewn to a set of several surrounding pieces of silk brocade in various colors. The outer layer of brocade is sewn back over itself, top and bottom, so round wood dowels, sometimes capped with fine silver fittings, can keep the canvas lightly stretched by gravity as it hangs.
They are the art of a nomadic culture. For travel, they can be rolled up into very small bulk and tied with the two long ties that are usually attached to the brocade. Rolling them wears the painted surface, so many such paintings have only a limited functional life. In addition, the traditional offering lamps burned in front of the shrine which the paintings overlook are fueled with butter. A butter lamp flame is quite bright and steady, but still releases considerable soot. Also, Tibetan incense makes a thick smoke which is heavy, clinging, and resinous. So thankas accumulate a dark patina with signs of wear relatively quickly.
There is a constant demand for new work, both from private collectors, and new dharma students, so there are specialist craftspeople who devote their lives to making these paintings. As with any artform, styles change with time, though, as in all religious art where the iconography is traditional, well known, and fixed, the style change is slow. So paintings such as the above can often be dated only by century on style alone.
Some of the artists are better than others, even under such traditional constraints, and some of the finest have been tulkus, or reborn high lamas, like the Dalai Lama. This may seem odd if you are familiar with Christian liturgical painting. It would be like Raphael or Michelangelo being members of the College of Cardinals. But, despite similar administrative and religious duties, a tulku can manifest his contributions to the welfare of all in the form of literary or artistic endeavor. In such a case, this activity would not be viewed as "less important" than his other religious activity either by the tulku himself, or by his peers.
The painting dates from the 1700's and the figure is Dorje Bernagchen, the Dharma Protector known as Black Cloak. The artist is unknown, but a true master. What I have shown is a detail of the central figure alone. In the actual thanka it is surrounded by other subsidiary figures related to the specific practices associated with Black Cloak and the most famous historical high lamas associated with those practices.
The Tibetans, like many religious artists throughout history, observe the convention of "hierarchical proportions" where the central figure of the painting is far larger than either the landscape background or the subordinate figures. This is congruent with the function of such paintings as the "support" for certain types of Buddhist meditation where the iconographic details of the figure have many complex meanings. A figure such as Dorje Bernagchen appears quite frequently as a subordinate figure, usually lower center, in the paintings associated with the particular lineage to which I belong, the Karma Kagyudpa.
But there are special practices devoted to Dorje Bernagchen, as well. And a painting where he is the central figure is the support for them. Black Cloak is what is known as an "enlightened" Dharma Protector, meaning that he is an enlightened being who assumes a terrifying form to subdue, for their own good, beings who are doing evil--particularly if they are threatening Buddhists or Buddhist teachings. If you are a Christian, Archangel Michael would be a rough equivalent as an artistic subject.
For an artist, Dorje Bernagchen is a particularly rich subject because of the specific visual details of his iconography, particularly his dwarvish proportions. His head is represented as one third of his total body and his gaping mouth as one-third of his head. The painters work from proportional pattern books and a page for Bernagchen is pictured at the left. In addition, his large black cloak blowing in the draft of the fires of wisdom which surround him, and which set his hair standing on end is an ideal detail for the display of a painters skill and mastery. As are Black Cloak's garlands of various snakes.
The anonymous artist's rendering of Bernagchen in the thanka above is one of the best and most compelling that I have ever seen. It captures superbly the terrifying wrath and electric energy of the enlightened dharma protectors. Much of this has to do with the relatively linear and contour delineated style of thankas in the 1700's. The artist's line is subtle and supple and perfectly under control. The quality and mastery of it can easily be seen when it is compared to the coarse and pedestrian lines of the pattern book page. The result is an incredibly fluid treatment of the figure, its character, and its accessories.
Beyond the enlightened Dharma Protectors, there are the Worldly or Oath-Bound Protectors. They are generally local, regional, or national spirits who are subdued by famous and realized high lamas, often through the meditations of the enlightened Dharma Protectors. These spirits are then bound by oaths to these lamas that they will protect Buddhism and Buddhists. This is not a one-way exchange--the oath and the protective actions benefit the spirits in their future lives as a seed for their own ultimate enlightenment. The first renowned teacher of Buddhism in Tibet, the great yogi and magician Padmasambavha, made a specialty of subduing such spirits. And the wild land of Tibet gave him plenty of work.
To the right is one of the most famous of these worldly protectors: Garwai Nagpo, the Oath-Bound Blacksmith, who carries a tiger-skin bellows and a smith's hammer, and rides a goat with corkscrewed horns. This is a much later thanka than the Black Cloak one above, and you can see how the stylistic emphasis has moved away from the linear contour to feature the interaction of fully shadowed and rounded color masses in the figure itself.
The Worldly Protectors have much greater variations in treatment and iconography. This same blacksmith figure, but dark red in color instead of blue-black, is depicted on the left. In some of the practices of my teachers, he is known in the red form as Dorje Legpa, or Thunderbolt Sadhu. Often these less formally defined figures give an artist a little more ground for individual expression than the more important Dharma Protectors. One of the attributes of this blacksmith figure is that he protects by riding around in all directions chasing malign influences from every quarter away as he does so.
The particular thanka of Dorje Legpa here seems to me to express this more completely than most by taking some liberties with the traditional treatment, that we see in Garwai Nagpo above, and letting the figure develop in space in such a way that it almost looks as if it were galloping down on you.
Both the enlightened and the worldly protectors are the focus of specific meditations whose purpose is explicitly expulsive of bad influences. Traditionally all the monks of a monastery would do such a practice daily, usually at sunset. This is done even yet up at my monastery. If an establishment was large enough, a separate shrine room especially for the protectors would be maintained and one lama in particular would take on the job of doing protector meditations all day. This is less common now both in the Tibetan diaspora or in those few monasteries which the Chinese have finally allowed a half-hearted existence [to benefit the tourist trade] because there are so few monks that such a specialist is an unsupportable luxury.
At the end of the Tibetan lunar new year, there are usually several days of protector practices in a row up to the day of the first crescent of the new moon, in order to expel the lingering dregs and lees of the old year. In my tradition, this has been developed into a form of masked dancing by the lamas and monks.
Practices such as these have been openly known since about the early 600's c.e. Buddhism then had a far greater presence in India and the Near East. A major center for it was where the Himalayas meet the Hindu Kush, an area which now overlaps the northernmost Pakistan, Kashmir, northeast Afghanistan, far west China, and Tajikistan. Tibet's national guru, Padmasambhava, who spent so much time subduing Tibetan worldly protectors and binding them by oath, came from the place called Uddyana or Orgyen in this region. Orgyen was likely near the ancient city of Gilgit in northern Pakistan, the stories of many other great Buddhist practitioners from this region are preserved in the Tibetan historical annals, and there were likely hundreds more who have been lost to any record, all of whom were skilled in the practices of the Dharma Protectors.
The effects of such things are subtle, but durable. Buddhist practice is totally gone from Afghanistan. However, it is very curious that one of the final acts of the Taliban government was the deliberate destruction of the huge, stone carved, Buddhist statues of Bamyan in the same geographic region. When I first heard of the destruction, I felt an involuntary cold chill pass through me. Such things are not to be undertaken lightly in places where Buddhism has left its traces, and I, at least, have learned just a very little about why.
The Taliban government is no more. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Perhaps, too, the fact that the near total destruction of Buddhist Tibet, starting in 1959, was followed by the Great Cultural Revolution in all of China 7 years later, bringing death or heartbreaking hardship to so many, is a relation of pure coincidence as well. Who can say?
The dangers of our time are many and some are as close as our own backs. There is a great deal of freedom here in America, most preciously religious freedom, since religion is the foundation of all that we know as culture. Differences of conscience and worship are not merely tolerated here, they are explicitly given the protection of the law. But laws are man-made things and they only function properly when no one and nothing is above the law, and all people, including those in power, either obey it or have it enforced upon them.
For some years now, the rule of law, as it applies to the President, has been a matter of dispute in this country. And a few weeks ago that dispute has broken into the open. Under those conditions nobody can be truly sure just what will be behind their backs, sooner or later. But if I, as a Buddhist, had my choice of someone to watch my back, Dorje Bernagchen wouldn't be a bad choice, as I think our wonderful painting makes clear.