Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beginner's Mind and Fierce Claws

Tsherin asked me to assist him in a class he's teaching at the Asian Art museum that coincides with the Bhutanese Art Exhibit. The workshop is held on four saturdays. During the first two saturdays, Tsherin will teach the basics of the thangka grid system using Shakyamuni Buddha as an example. The final two saturdays a different teacher will be instructing on how to paint the background in a more asian brushwork style. Quite a large task to complete in only a few hours considering most thangka paintings takes hundreds of hours to complete.

Considering that my ongoing class consists of six students who generally work independently, a class of twenty-two students with various artistic and spiritual backgrounds was quite a challenge. Thus he called in my assistance for the second week.

I went into the class with only a vague idea of what I would be encountering. I figured it would be a good practice that would challenge my ability to be open to the moment. My first realization was that people's expectations varied widely. One person didn't want to have anything to do with the thangka grid system. She misread the catalog listing thinking that the course would be consisting only of asian brush painting. My first instinct was to calm her by trying to explain how this practice could influence how she picks up her brush in the coming weeks. Her mind however was not open to suggestion. Her voice was critical. She held expert mind of her needs and ability. Luckily, other students jumped in to help me out so I was able to move on to students who wanted my assistance. Somehow by the middle of the class I noticed her laughing about her anger. I wish i could have gotten a copy of her Buddha that she crudely drawn the week before. The hands had these fierce claws with long fingernails. A perfect manifestation of her mind state. I'm sure I'll will be thinking about her for years to come.

I enjoyed talking to many of the other students. Seeing the the uncertainty of their first pencil strokes. Seeing how their body language corresponded. I shared my experiences in working in this darkened state when everything is new. People felt like things needed to be perfect the first time around. I explained that only with time will their lines become more subtle and their eyes more discerning.

One of the things that comes up in a brief course is the the explanation of symbology within the buddhist framework. For myself, I've pieced together aspects through many hours of painting, reading, and meditation. Comparing them back and forth. Getting glimpses now and again. For somebody who is new to both the practice of art and buddhism, this is quite a challenge.

Thangkas are designed to help awaken the mind. That is why people are initially drawn to them. However, I've never seen a good book or heard a teaching that explains the gross aspects for a beginner audience. Robert Beer's encyclopedias are too dense. Most talks start getting into the subtle aspects of practice thus confusing people without a foundation. How do we find a way to introduce the groundwork without overwhelming them?

Overall, the experience has inspired me in ways I'll be exploring for years. On the ride from Oakland to San Francisco, I got some personal time to talk with Tsherin as peer to peer which we haven't done in awhile. We talked about how contemporary artwork influences us. About his teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse. About trying to find his identity as a Tibetan in America. I'm moving in the opposite direction. Being born into a consumer society, I'm trying to find my path into a more sustainable way.. I'm curious how our experiences will meet in the middle in the years ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paul,
    My name is Melia. I just stumbled upon your site
    looking for information on Thangka painting
    schools and teachers.
    After seeing your blog I feel that much more inspired to learn Thangka.
    I may check out Tsherin's classes
    when I get back to the Bay.
    Thank you for blogging. Melia