Colourful & Overflowing with Meaningful Images & Symbols

medicine buddha
Great Medicine Buddha for Healing and Great Success

I live with a few thousand Buddha images… it is an indulgence and they are my way of bringing their blessing power into my home, which now overflows with every style of moulding, carving and painting devoted to exalting the form of the Buddha. I started inviting these sacred images into my home about twenty years ago. And as their presence grew, so did the size of my house. Today, my small and humble home has become a mansion complete with a paradise of a lush garden… coincidence or causal? I believe these sacred images did indeed create a flow of auspicious “increase” to manifest for me and my family!

It is quite extraordinary how many thousands of different forms and decorations of Buddhas there are. Spiritual Art forms like the ones that made their way to me must have ignited the creativity of Master artists from many Asian countries where the teachings of the Enlightened One have taken root. Images of the Buddha differ in form and style, reflecting the spiritual traditions of places such as India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China and Tibet…

I have quite a collection. The most exquisite of my Buddha art are my beautiful thangkas, traditional Tibetan silk paintings which are so achingly beautiful they reach right into my heart. I never tire of looking at the masterpieces I have been lucky to acquire. They exude a high form of energy that is light and subtle, so that each time I gaze into the serenity of the faces of the Buddha Deities, something inside me softens. A restful calm settles over me.

The first Thangka I ever owned was one of Four-armed Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. I fell in love with it the moment I laid eyes on it. That was in my lama’s room in Singapore. I could barely contain my yearning, so I wished hard for it to somehow come to me. Rinpoche must have read my mind, for he smiled at me and said, “Choose any Thangka you like. I want to make you a gift!” Without hesitation, I selected the small exquisite Thangka of Chenrezig which had caught my attention and had spoken so clearly to me. Today, it occupies pride of place in my home. There was no looking back since that day, and over the years, I invited a great many more thangkas into my home…

Some of my thangkas have “migrated” to the office and to my daughter’s home. My thangkas have a life of their own, relocating to places where they are loved and revered; cared for and appreciated. Some have made their way into the homes of my niece and my nephew and to my Dharma friends. The harmonizing influence of these lovely art pieces are so powerful, I simply have to share them. Hanging just one Thangka painting in your home can cause auspicious nectar blessings of the powerful Deity whose form you have invited into your home to manifest around you – invisible and intangible, yet so soothing to be in their presence.

You will feel your senses calmed but also heightened, especially if you choose a Thangka which resonates strongly with you. This happens when you simply “cannot resist”, that is when something about the image mesmerizes you like what Rinpoche’s Chenrezig did to me.

This is how you know you simply have to invite the Thangka into your home – it “speaks” to you, makes you feel good. And you do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate these paintings.

Having said that, I have to confess I am overwhelmed by the unspoken kindness of the Buddha attitude – bringing help, giving love and practicing benevolence with no conditions attached. You DO NOT NEED to be a Buddhist to receive the blessings of the Buddha.

Hanging Thangka art that showcases a particular Buddha Deity is like inviting that Deity into your home, and because these are omniscient and enlightened beings, their mere presence is sufficient to put all local spirits in your environment on their best behaviour.

And no need to be so serious either. Buddha does have a sense of humour, and Buddha is never small-minded. But do be respectful. Do not sit on a rolled-up thangka, or place them under the chair or hang them inside your toilet; and always place some kind of offering in front of them. The easiest is to place a vase of real flowers or seven fresh water bowls daily, a ritual which calms you and attracts plenty of goodwill into your life. It also reduces your anger energy.

Thangkas originated in Tibet. They are paintings done on paper and framed with brocade or on silk. The paintings have a central Buddha Deity surrounded by other Bodhisattvas and by mountain, sky and earth scenery. Faces are drawn with a sure hand and the Deities are adorned with bejeweled ornaments and brightly coloured robes. There is usually plenty of intricate patterns and symbols. There are also Thangkas of Mandalas – celestial mansions of the Buddhas and of the Wheel of Life, which show the different realms of existence.

In the old days, Thangkas were mainly hung in monasteries and in the wealthy homes of high-class Tibetan aristocrats. The best Thangkas were commissioned paintings drawn with specially blessed pigments made from lapis, gold and other precious minerals. Thangkas like these were deemed to be extremely valuable, especially those drawn in accordance with instructions given by presiding high lamas of a monastery or region; such Thangkas are deeply revered by the community. I have seen some old Thangkas… those hanging in the museums of New York, or which have been photographed from private collections. They do not age well and those from monasteries have layers of smoke residue on them. Still, they retain quite a special energy, but I prefer the newly-painted Thangkas.

My Lama explained to me his preference for Thangkas that are completely painted over with patterns, symbols and minor Deities covering the entire canvas. He also preferred them with blue skies and white clouds, or with multiple repetitions of tiny-sized Buddhas – known as tsa tsa images. “More auspicious,” he whispered to me once.

Exquisite details in every corner

However these days, because demand for thangkas has been rising so fast, painters have become very commercial-minded and few now are willing to spend too many back-breaking months on one Thangka. As a result, most Thangkas that are now available in the tourist streets of Thamel in Katmandu or around the Bhoudanath Stupa are hastily-drawn pieces that have little artistic merit. Unless of course you are an old customer known to one of the few shop owners who still have Master artists painting excellent works for them. Then only will they show you the more exquisite pieces – and these will surely take your breath away! Do not bargain for these pieces. If you do, it is unlikely you will ever get shown such masterpieces again.

Painting a Thangka is a painstaking process that can take up to a year to complete. From preparing the canvas, to the drawing (Buddha’s face and body must adhere to strict proportions) and the painting can take a month or so for a large piece. Shading, colour gradations, the gold work, the lines and the final detailing can take twice as long. Artists work differently and sometimes more than one artist may work on the same piece. Painting with gold for instance requires special skills.

Green Tara the Goddess of Swift Success

Rarely is there a plain background colour; every inch of the Thangka is covered, at the bottom with earth and lake motifs, stylized water and trees, plants and animals, as well as symbols to depict a variety of offerings. There will be the lotus flower on which is a sun or moon disc where the Deity sits. Sometimes the lotus is painted above an elaborate throne decorated with jewels and a pair of snow lions. Sometimes there are horses, tigers and elephants, dragons and other wild animals. Everything painted into a Thangka is deemed to be auspicious!

It is not difficult to spot a masterpiece. These usually have hundreds of tiny images of other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Protectors, Dakinis, minor Deities and offering Goddesses – all of which are as finely detailed as the main Deity.

Halfway up the Thangka there are mountains, birds, dakinis and higher up are the skies, the clouds, the sun and the moon. There could also be a group of offering goddesses carrying flowers and flying dakinis playing music. The fuller a thangka is, the higher its value, and if you look closely at a “full” Thangka, showing the six realms or Buddha’s life story for instance, there can be so many auspicious symbols it will take you several months of looking to ‘find’ them all.

Even when a Thangka is meant for meditational purpose alone and hence may not require too much in terms of subject matter – even such thangkas are expected to show the deity, its robes and ornaments and tools in great and fine detail.

I have a fondness for the Newari-style Thangkas of Katmandu which are amongst the most highly prized today. I also like the perfectly executed “copies” of the Kadampa style thangkas of a past era; these have such fine facets that looking at them a thousand times over, there will still be something “new” to discover amongst the multitudes of Deity imagery.

I commissioned copies of some truly beautiful thangkas of the 15th century. These took a year to paint and I am genuinely pleased with the results. They are quite rare pieces which create a newly-painted look that is fresh and yet traditional, quite unlike the grainy dark originals that hang in museums. Look at them reproduced at our website and see if any of them resonates or appeals to you?