Thangka paintings by Kenji Babasaki

Sacred art
The Eastern Christian tradition of Byzantium has a saying that could serve as a definition of all sacred art:

We have read the word; now show us the Mystery.

This emphasizes the point that scripture, by itself, is a preliminary towards the experience of the sacred which, for most mortals, requires stage-by-stage instruction by a reliable guide. Visual aids, in such a training process, are more than a retelling-in-pictures for the illiterate, as is often presumed; in the better cases they will provide pointers that evoke the unsayable.
Is there a need for visual sacred art? Not many living traditions are still able to produce it, although they may look back on centuries of pious artistic representation of religious subjects. It is not that sacred art shies away from or is immune to historically evolving - and even competing - styles, but it never happens in the name of 'progress'. It is very much the case that, with every fresh element in the repertoire, the artist is also forced to abandon other means that led to former heights.

Tibetan history provides several examples of great yogin saints who were outstanding painters or sculptors of Buddhist sacred art. This does not mean that, even for the given period, they were the best. If anything, they often stood outside the then current historical 'evolution' of art and produced works that, more often than not, are stylistic exceptions, almost as unrelated to the mainstream art of the time as are the reliefs and statues deemed "self-originated" (rang-jung). Treatises on artistic practice do not fail to describe the lifestyle, attitude and required abilities of the ideal artist. But no sacred art was ever exclusively produced by living saints. All the other artists had to make do with patient training under masters of the previous generation, and consult existing examples of sacred art. Less common subjects required consultation of the guidelines laid down in literary sources.

What is inheritently "sacred" in such artistic expression? Archeological evidence has proof: during the first centuries after Shakya-muni, his followers did not dare represent him in human form, probably out of fear that the image thus created would solely represent the historical figure, and fail to evoke the realized state of Buddhahood, the perfect accomplishment of peace and wisdom which results in the spontaneous arising of compassion; a state "beyond words and concepts". Instead, his presence, in the earliest Indian stone statuary, is indicated by symbols, usually associated with events in his life: a throne bearing an auspicious symbol, a pair of footprints, a wheel flanked by two deer, etc. And yet all Buddhist scriptures agree that portraits of the Buddha already existed during Shakya-muni's lifetime (563-483 BC), commissioned by kings and merchant sponsors of the spiritual community. Hence we need to draw a distinction between
  • widespread public imagery that was not shy of showing disciples and divine beings in human form but, out of respect, restricted his portrayal to symbolic forms, (
  • the rare paintings (and soon after, statues) of the Buddha, housed in private chapels and, later, monastic enclosures.
From the descriptions there can be no doubt that these early portraits were treated as great treasures; one became the present of a king to a neighboring ruler which the latter found impossible to match with another gift.
This view, that twin traditions were connected with the visual representation of the Buddha fully corresponds with the idea of a gradual revelation of "the noble doctrine" itself, the training methods of the Buddha's Dharma.

That the use of visual aids was appreciated from the earliest times can be read from early Buddhist sacred art that has survived in India. The Buddha himself is believed to have established the guidelines for the exact proportions to be used by artists for depicting beings of different spiritual attainment; and one such set is ascribed to, and is still named after, the Great Elder Shari-putra, one of the 'Two Foremost' disciples. In order to explain his attainment, the Buddha told stories about Shari-putra's previous lives; from which it transpires that twice before he had been a painter. Texts that retrace the history of Buddhist art all agree that the present-day portrayals of the Buddha - such as the central figure in scroll Painting 1 in the catalogue - are direct descendants of these earliest representations. In fact, when Kenji Babasaki first approached his teacher, the first lesson consisted of exactly this: learning and memorizing the proportions for drawing the face of someone who, through mental training, has eliminated (Tibetan: sang) everything negative; and has increased to an optimum level (Tibetan: gyé) all the positive qualities of peace, wisdom and compassion. The face of a Buddha, in other words (Tibetan: Sang-gyé).

Reading thangka art
It goes without saying that there is more to a thangka painting than the mere esthetic satisfaction gained from a brocade-bordered 'modern antique' on one's sitting room wall. Just because such art, right from the start, served as a support for meditation, in the sense of providing a help for the visual imagination, its creation involves a great responsibility for the artist: a well proportioned and inspired sacred representation, completed with care, enhances (especially) a beginner's meditation practice. On the other hand, misproportioned images - besides 'misleading' the viewer - bring worse than bad luck, to the artist, to the beholder and even, it is said, to the environment. But this fine art often also serves to dedicate the positive results to someone dear to the sponsor: a relative in bad circumstances; a friend recently deceased. Such a 'transfer of merit', even for the most learned, retains an element of mystery. On the one hand, the law of karma assures us that we reap the benefit of our own good actions, our good speech and positive thoughts (of course, the same goes for the harvest of their negative counterparts). These karmic causes do not mature or 'ripen' in the life (or subsequent lives) of anyone else, only in that or those of the person who committed these acts. And yet, almost everyone's life, instances occur where, under exceptional circumstances, a strong wish of compassionate kindness towards someone one holds dear, 'almost certainly' does influence the course of events. This belongs to the ill-defined domain of intuition: sometimes 'it works' and often it doesn't. The claim is made that, through mind training techniques, a selfless "universal responsibility" may be developed, to a level beyond imagination; and which eventually - within the context of karmic possibility - makes such 'transfers' succeed. The material support for such a transfer is often the sponsoring or participation in the funding of a work of art. Dedications, inscribed on individual reliefs of the 2nd c. BC stupa of Sanchi, include the names of Greek colonists' descendants.

Is it feasible for viewers who are not part of the tradition to understand and thereby better appreciate thangka art? As with any new branch of learning, it is a matter of gradual acquaintance. Each of the divine figures refers to a meditation scenario, part of mind training techniques suitable for different 'case histories', i.e. adapted to the specific capacities of different trainees. Thurman, by reference to western psychology, refers to some of these sacred images as "archetype deities" each of which heads a cycle of 'esoteric science', with applications for a wide range of goals, and supported by a vast literature.
The person keen on a deeper appreciation first learns how to distinguish which figures thematically belong together; and how these groups relate to one another in a given composition. Only later will one then also be able to assign the imagery to specific schools and lineages of revelation, going all the way back to the Master who first revealed this particular meditation system.

But for many of us - as in Kenji Babasaki's own case - the artistry itself will first catch our eye: the precise, minute draughtsmanship, the purity of lines executed with a brush, the intricate rays of light emanating from these Buddhas, deities and religious Masters ("I recognize a painter's mastery and even personal style from examining his lines", Babasaki never tires of saying). Then there are the specific 'grammars' developed over the centuries, for hanging and moving cloud formations, for garlands of flame around wrathful deities, the movement of rivers and waterfalls; and for etereal space itself, where gently floating, patterned shawls fold and unfold. Thangka art is a world of wonder. The more one learns, the more amazing the miracle of its survival into the 21st century becomes.