Twelve Years of Thangka Art: Apprenticeship, Personal Practice, & Evolution by Tiffani Gyatso

Tiffani Mural
A commonly held view is that the body houses the soul—but have you ever thought that the soul could live elsewhere?

I have experienced that feeling. Although my body was born in 1981 to my German mother in Brazil, where I grew up, 18 years later I had an “encounter” with my soul’s home in Mongolia. For almost a year, my family and I traveled east by motorhome from Germany and right across Russia. Reaching the border between Russia and western Mongolia, it took days just to receive permission to cross. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, we feared we might never make it! Finally a drunken general provided the necessary authorization and we drove freely onwards into Mongolia, sometimes without a visible road in front of us.

Beneath the expansive blue sky that crowned the arid landscape, my happy tears fell like rain. Those tears nourished a hungry artistic seed within me that desired to grow in the direction of the sunshine; to follow a path to spiritual liberation through art. I believed in such a path and it made sense to me, but until then I hadn’t known how to go about following it. Once in Mongolia, however, I was introduced by a monk at Gandantegchinlen Monastery in Ulaanbaatar to the sacred art of thangka painting, which depicts the various Buddhas, spirits, enlightened beings, and spiritual worlds of Tibetan Buddhism. I had been seeking an artistic discipline of some kind that would guide me to the divine, and this was it! 

Visiting a nomad family in Mongolia, 2000
Visiting a nomad family in Mongolia, 2000

Nevertheless, it was a long road before I was accepted three years later as the first Western student at the Norbulingka Institute, founded by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, near Dharamsala in northern India. I have traveled all my life—even living for a few months with an aborigine community in the Australian outback, and spending a couple of years on a sailboat on the Brazilian coast during my teens—but India was beyond anything I could have imagined. I was sick for the first three months I spent there, during which time the school was unsure whether to accept me or not. Even my mother urged me to go home. But something inside me was unmoved by all these “tests.” I felt that if I went back, my soul would abandon my body.

I was finally accepted as a student at the Norbulingka Institute in September 2003. All the wise and holy artists I had expected to meet turned out to be mostly teenagers eager to meet a girl—a blond girl—in the studio at last. Gen-la, the master, was initially somewhat reticent, and we didn’t even share a common language. He gestured towards a Buddha face made up of many symmetrical lines and then pointed to a blank sheet of paper, so I sat on the floor near him and started to sketch. The first word I learned in Tibetan from Gen-la was “again!”—do it again! And so I did, for weeks, the same drawing over and over again until Gen-la would give me my next project. 

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Painting class at the Norbulingka Institute, 2005

My apprenticeship during the three years I spent there was very slow and painstaking. It was essentially this atmosphere that molded my predisposition to understand that painting a thangka is a spiritual practice in itself; the thangka is there for you to give your time and attention to, and to house your soul. It is a sacred art with a unique function. If you do not have that understanding in the very depth of your being, you will soon abandon the training. Some do not even consider thangka painting to be art, but a practice involving paint that has the same aim as any other Buddhist practice. It was a year before Gen-la even called me by my name; until then he just called me “intchi bhumo,” or “foreign girl.” And it was more than a year before I actually even touched paint, and then only because one of my classmates hid me behind a big canvas and started to teach me himself. Gen-la was actually proud of my boldness when he found out, and finally guided me on my first proper painting. Those were precious times; I was truly happy despite the difficulties I experienced, and my certainty of being on the right track never wavered.

In 2006 I returned to Brazil to discover that I was pregnant. In October that year, a little boy of Tibetan-Brazilian-German heritage was born. His father came over and we lived together for a few years until he moved to the United States to join a larger Tibetan community. Back in Brazil I was fearful that I would have to stop painting—I was 24 with a baby and no money, and all I knew how to do was paint. Afraid that such worries would make me lose my path, I continued to paint my thangkas, my son held close to my body.

When my son was only a few months old, I was contacted by a Brazilian lama—Lama Padma Samten, a disciple of Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, who had already established a huge sangha. He had heard about me through a mutual friend and sent my son and me tickets to visit his new temple in the south of Brazil. When I finally arrived I was amazed by the size of the temple, which was built to accommodate 300. As I stood there sleep-deprived and perfumed with milk and diapers, he asked me if I would paint the interior walls. I was astonished—but I agreed!

Tiffani working at home with her son in Brazil, 2006
Tiffani working at home with her son in Brazil, 2006

Tiffani and her son at Lama Padma Samten's temple in Brazil
Tiffani and her son at Lama Padma Samten’s temple in Brazil

For a month I stood gazing at those terrifyingly huge white walls in fear. I really had no idea how to start! I could not call anyone in India because of the language barrier, and the materials available in Brazil for painting murals wouldn’t be the same as those I was familiar with. So I began slowly, as Gen-la had taught me. First, I met with a local artist to learn more about the proper materials. I learned about the specific deities and mandalas that Lama Samten wished to incorporate. The members of his sangha were very supportive, and many came to help. Those who could give more of their time I trained to paint. Those who couldn’t paint, I asked to massage our aching shoulders, play some instrument or other, give yoga lessons, or even bake a cake for our tea breaks. I felt that everyone should be included. The project took five challenging years to complete, all guided by Lama Samten’s blessings.

As mentioned earlier, those tears in Mongolia had fed the artist within, and now the artist was awake. I soon had the feeling that thangka painting was a “safe zone” for me as the work is all done according to rules that, if followed, offer some guarantee of success. So, in a way, I felt that thangkas had given me discipline and now, only now, was I ready to risk expressing myself. So I began to take more seriously the opportunity to try a more intuitive kind of painting, especially when my personal life was a mess. I was allowed to explode on the canvas, I was allowed to make mistakes . . . I needed to be able to be wrong yet acceptable. 

Accumulating a body of art pieces during my free time while painting the temple, with some trepidation I presented my work to Tibet House in New York. I was relieved when they accepted my work and agreed to produce my first show, in 2012—a solo exhibition titled Mystic Nostalgia, in which I sought to express that longing for a lost “home.” Not necessarily a real place; the work is more about our inner landscape . . . a mystic longing. My second exhibition will open at Tibet House on 23 October this year.*

A piece from Tiffani's
A piece from Tiffani’s “Mystic Nostalgia” collection

Since completing my work at the temple at the end of 2012, I have focused on holding thangka workshops, producing thangkas to order, and taking part in workshops and retreats to teach the intuitive process of self-expression through paint, movement, and writing. I believe the key is maintaining the approach of an apprentice—the beginner’s mind. I feel that I’m learning each time I teach, each time I listen to people, each time I encounter another culture or eat a different food. I learned the benefits of discipline and following rules from the thangka tradition, and when I walk into the unknown with my wild self that sometimes wants its own way, I continue to learn.

Tradition provides us with the roots and structure through which we express ourselves like a hundred branches growing in the air, catching the breeze with their lush leaves. Nourish discipline as much as you nourish your freedom and you’ll soon discover that they are one.

Tiffani Gyatso is a traditional Buddhist thangka painter and a member of the Dakini As Art Collective.

*Sublime Worlds – Sonam Lhamo and Tiffani Gyatso (Tibet House)

This article was first published by Buddhistdoor Global, October 9th, 2015
About The Artist:  Tiffani Gyatso

Tiffani Gyatso and son

Tiffani Gyatso’s profile.