The Thangka School

In lieu of writing something new (Internet is intermittent around here) I am borrowing something I wrote in an email to my Uncle. Since it seemed like a good story I thought I would share it on the blog as well.

Uncle Chris,
I was visiting an ancient Hindu temple complex in Bhaktapur
last week and let me tell you, it was well worth seeing. One of the
temples was the temple of Shiva dedicated to the Kama Sutra, complete
with xxx rated sculptures in bas-relief all over it. Unbelievably ugly
and comically awkward at the same time.
Of much more interest, there is a school there where they
teach Thangka painting, which is an ancient Buddhist method of
instruction and worship, originating in monastaries in Tibet. I did not
see any of the students painting because it was a holy day (saturday is
the Hindu holy day) and also Buddhas birthday.
Why would a school of Buddhist art be housed in Hindu
temple you ask? Well, from what I have seen in my travels and in
reading, comparing the pure Buddhism of, say the Dalai Lama or other
high level writers, to the popular Buddhism of Tibet, Nepal, India etc. I
would have to say that pure Buddhism is extremely rare. One of the
proprieters of the school was there explaining the history of Thangka
painting and the meanings of it and we had quite a long talk about
Buddhism and Hinduism. He was a little irate about it. He quite
emphatically insisted that the Buddha never spoke about god or gods or
any other independently existing spiritual entity. However, the vast
majority of people cannot seem to handle a religion without gods, so
wherever Buddhism went people simply grafted in the gods that they had
always worshipped. So all the literally thousands of Hindu gods are no
subjects of Buddhist philosophies and Buddha is one more god.
You wonder why the Catholic missionaries often freaked out
about that sort of thing. “Oh, so you’re bringing in another god? Whats
his name? Jesus? Sure, bring him on! The more the merrier. He’ll be in
good company. So what is he the god of again?” I can see how that might
be a bit disconcerting to someone who set out to convert the benighted
The painting, however, was amazing. Highly ornate, very
stylized, and incredibly detailed. The proprieter explained that some of
the paintings were for philosophical education, some were to tell
stories, such as the life of the Buddha, some were mandalas, symbolic
representations of temples with complex interpretations, and some were
for medical purposes. It was a fascinating lecture. At the end of it he
made sure to let us know that the paintings were for sale. There was a
very large one, about 3′ × 4′, painted by one of the masters of the
school, one of the lamas. It was unbelievable. The sheer detail was
incredible. Some of the details had been painted in using a brush with
only one hair, they were so tiny, and some of the paint was made with
real gold. It took the lama four months to paint it. The price? 80,000
That’s about $940.00 U.S.
One of the guys was there with me and he said I should
haggle about it if I was going to buy it. In all the markets in Thamel
(the touristy strip in Kathmandu) haggling is the name of the game. I am
terrible at it, by the way, and always end up paying twice or three
times as much as the next guy. He thought 900 bucks for a painting was a
ripoff, especially since he could go to Thamel and buy a copy of that
exact paint for maybe 5,000 rupees.
I more or less ignored him and continued talking with the
proprieter. He explained that this school was struggling to keep the
heritage of painting alive and that the proceeds from the sales went to
buy paints and pay for room and board for the students during their 10
year (!!!!!) stay at the school. He explained that selling the paintings
was done in a co-op like that because most people, after spending every
waking moment for four months working on that painting are going to
have trouble parting with it or setting a reasonable price. I agreed.
I am beginning to realize that the habit of courtesy that
my parents inculcated into me from an early age is far more than simply a
grasp of a particular culture’s ettiquette. In fact, that courtesy has
stood me in good stead in every country I have visited to the extent
that I often find myself getting along better with the natives than I do
with the Americans. It is, primarily, a concern for the other person’s
comfort and sensibilities, and as such manifests itself in a willingness
to listen to the other person. If you practice listening long enough
you get used to it, and you develop the ability to see things from the
other persons perspective, which in turn makes them more willing to try
to see things from your perspective. There was a good deal of respect
between that little proprieter and myself. I listened and I understood
where he was coming from. I explained that I agreed that it was a fair
price, but that I had a responsibility to use my money for other things. He offered to call
the artist and see if he would lower the price, but I said no, I did
not want him to. That price was more than fair and I did not want him to
sell it short. I left a donation in the box, we bowed and shook hands
and parted with, I think, a great deal of mutual respect.
Once outside I somewhat took my buddy to task over the
whole thing. I recognize a true believer when I see one, and I respect
that. The lama who painted that thangka and the man who was explaining
and selling them had both dedicated their lives to that art. That
painting had taken four months of a man’s life to create, and more than
that, was the product of an entire lifetime of study, practice and
sacrifice to deepen and perfect his art. Whether or not I completely
agree with the faith that inspired that art, I cannot help but respect
the good that that faith does in the lives of its practitioners, and
certainly I have to respect the sacrifice of an entire life to the
pursuit of that faith and its art.
There is a story told of Picasso, to the effect that one
day as he was walking down the street, an art aficionado came up to him
and asked if he would sketch his portrait. Picasso obliged and in about
thirty seconds sketched up an amazing likeness on a sheet of notebook
paper. He offered it back to the man saying, “That will be $5,000
The man was flabbergasted and said, “But it took you less than a minute to draw that. Surely your time is not that valuable.”
The artist replied, “Sir, you are wrong. It has taken me my entire life to draw that.”
While there is an element of arrogance to that, there is
also an element of truth, in that the work of a human life is quite
literally priceless. Where Picasso went wrong was in assuming that his
life’s work was any more valuable than, say, a ditch digger’s life’s
work, done with the same level of dedication.
Whether my buddy was impressed with this argument or not I
cannot say, but I followed it up by breaking down “four months” into
familiar terms. Say our artist monk worked from 9-5 every day. That is
an eight hour day, times the typical Nepali 6-day work week, times 16
weeks, for a grand total of approximately 768 man hours. When you factor
in the price of materials and a commission for the seller (who, small as
he is, also needs to eat), that monk is not even making a dollar an
hour. No worker in America, not even a burger flipper at McDonalds, puts
in 768 man hours and only makes $940. You yourself would certainly not
paint a portrait for four months straight and sell it for less than
(My uncle is a professional artist and graphic designer. I remember him saying once, “Customers always want fast, cheap, and good quality. I tell them pick two. You can’t have all three.)
That argument impressed my buddy enough that he acknowledged that it “definitely was not a racket.”
I meant also to cover some thoughts in this email about
that evangelization of manhood idea, as I have had some new thoughts
(bringing in Brad Miner’s Compleat Gentleman) but this email has become
much longer than I thought it would so that will have to wait. As a
matter of fact, I might recycle this email as a blogpost, if you do not
mind. It would save me some time.
Hope you are well.

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