This article was first published in a non-abbreviated form on BuddhistDoor Global:
I think for Westerners it is easy to get caught up in the unusual aspects of Buddhist visualization practice – for example – skullcups full of blood, ferocious deities, so many weapons… so much so that the student is not able to wait for the practice to take root and unfold. This painting was created to help Buddhist students with the visualization practice of Chöd, an ancient healing practice thousands of years old. It pre-dates any of the known religions of our time, but was adopted into the Buddhist set of practices in ancient days. It is more a literal, linear “look” at how the visualization forms, and so it is geared towards helping the Western mind understand the step by step memorization of the practice.
Instruction in the practice and imagery came from Lama Tsering Wangdu Rimpoche, abbot of the Pal Gyi Langkor Jangsem Kunga Ling Monastery in Boudha, Nepal. He passed his lineage teachings onto the Abbot and students of The Movement Center, which still practices Chöd and conducts it for the public on a regular basis.
Lama Tsering Wangdu Rimpoche (LamaWangdu.org) completed the traditional training of his time, which included practicing in 108 cremation grounds in and around Tibet. He is a lineage holder of the Longchen Nyingthig, Shije, and Chöd practice traditions. He has been recognized as a living treasure by the people of Nepal, where he had lived since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, first and for a long time in the refugee camp. In 2000 the Dalai Lama directed him to establish a new monastery in Nepal to teach others his practice. Rimpoche currently divides his time between Nepal and Vancouver Washington.
In the Buddhist way of thinking, poor health, be it in the body, mind, or spirit realm, is caused by spirits. “Spirits”. We make attempts to eliminate the symptoms they cause with healing modalities, sort of the “going to war” approach to healing – but Chöd teaches us to contact these mischievous, malevolent and confused spirits, asking them politely to leave, take something of me, and stop bothering this person. This then lets the sufferer’s own vital force heal the chaos the spirits made once they are gone.
I began the painting by trying to think of how I would portray a linear story line where many things are happening at once, amidst all the deities to be to acknowledged, all the while drawing it to look like a traditional thangka. With that in mind, the cemetery and worldly life, the practitioner and his monastery, are at the bottom and as your gaze travels up the painting the energies get lighter and finer until the highest and finest of all at the top.
I paint using a mixture of gouache – a coarser grind of the same materials that watercolors are made from, prepared mineral paints, and gold. Mineral paints are opaque and beautiful, rich complex colors. Gouache can be chalky and matt finished and very rich, and also translucent and used in layering like watercolor to create nuances of color like one sees in old thangkas, when there is fading and erosion of the surface, staining from soot and environmental factors, which I find really beautiful. I just try to paint colors like the old thangkas look like through aging. For instance, to create a nimbus, I might first paint a translucent layer of chartreuse green, and then overlay that with two tones of green, one the color of leaves in June with the sun shining through them, and one opaque blue green like dark Chinese turquoise. The mixture makes the nimbus look luminous and rich. The final touch is the addition of real gold. There is nothing like it for beauty, and it and the minerals, have energetic “umph” that I think make thangkas paintings in general very rich viewing experiences. Mineral and rock, like diamonds and rubies – are very different creatures than plastic synthetics produced by science. People are drawn to thankgsas made with mineral paints – they give them vibrancy and life.
I love seeing people look at my art who are seeing thangka art for the first time. I think art is a effective tool for opening minds and hearts to different ways of living and thinking about life and the Creative Spirit of God.
Below is a “tour” of the painting:
A practitioner (bottom right) leaves the monastery at night to go to a cemetery to do Chod practice, which is traditionally done at a place where there is confusion or tension, like a crowded crossroad areas, or where the veil between this world and the next is thin. He walks along, reciting the mantra for the practice, and visualizing the area he is going to practice in. You see him/her (I attempted to made the practitioner neither male or female, just a person, although I call him a “he”) sitting in the center in the bottom register, in a glen in a forest, at night. Circling him is a dorje fence and wall of flames that he has envisioned to make the space sacred and safe to perform the practice. He sits in a field of energy he envisions, a vajra field, on a human skin, and under a tent. Illness-causing demons and energies representing the 5 directions are around him, as the lord and lady of the cremation ground, the chittipatti, rise out of the ground and dance around the practitioner. Dakinis joyfully dance around the perimeter. To the left is a cemetery and cremation ground surrounded by a ring of sinister-looking overhanging trees. A coyote, vultures and various spirits roam the place, dogs fight over a dead animal. A junkie expires in the lower left.
Behind and above the scene is a body offering on top of mount Meru amidst a mountain range, and the sea beyond that. More demons reside in the hills and peek around the mountains. Above dances Troma Nagmo, the main deity of the practice, vast as space, arisen from his mind. She is fierce, on fire with the intensity of her compassion for all beings, which burns through the fabric of duality, the illusion of this and that, right and wrong, God separate from me. She is surrounded by the cosmos, strewn with offerings, mounds of flesh and blood and bones, and anything else the illness-causing creatures might want; money, material things, – whatever it is they want, more than they can ever need. Vajra Varahi projects from Troma’s heart and flies down to cut the skull off of the body mandala offering – which becomes a huge skullcup. In it he has visualized placing his body offering to the demons, his teachers, the gods of the place, passersby and all enlightened beings; all of humanity. His simple offering of himself is transformed into the most desirable elixir by the fire of commitment to the practice and wish to give. Rainbows emanate from the elixir called amrita, created from the selfless, fearless gift of ones own vital force to the beings causing illness. Around Troma is the lineage field of The Movement Center, both the Buddhist side and Kashmir Shaivite. Sitting at their feet are students and below them, a sea of people talking, laughing, selling things, living life – a crowd representing humanity.
The sky becomes lighter and iridescently luminous, the farther up the canvas goes. Small dakinis fly through the air, bringing copper cups of amrita offering to the deities, teachers, people and spirits above. Above the lineage field are the Buddhas representing the five Buddha families, and to their sides are the yidams – the protective deities for those who practice Chod: Marchungma, White Mahakala, Palden Lhamo, Green Tara, and Avalokitesvara. Above Troma is Vajra Varahi again, representing the energy and vitality of life itself, and at the top is Prajnaparamita, the ancient goddess who personifies the potency of space: spanda, scintillating stillness, dynamic awareness. She is the first deity acknowledged when the practice starts. Around her are Vajrasattva, Samantabhadra, and Vajradhara.
By giving of himself, the practitioner pacifies and satisfies the dark forces, who leave, satiated with the gifts.