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Compassion in Form and Living Color

The Mandala Project, Hammer Museum, Oct. 26 – Nov. 7, 2010 –

The invasion, occupation and exploitation of Tibet by the Chinese that began in 1951 has left a unique cultural and spiritual tradition in tatters. Massive engines of information and misinformation variously describe Tibet before the Chinese as a sort of spiritual paradise or conversely, a hell on earth whose cause was taken up by the evil CIA. The ordinary citizen is often left distressed, guessing, interpolating and trusting blindly. I recently asked a Tibetan gentleman about his 1959 escape from the Chinese government troops who had come to his small hamlet. Surely there was a friendly taxi driver, a delivery truck or creaky bus to assist them. His golden, ravaged face breaking into a gentle smile, he told me, “There was nothing mechanical in Tibet. No machines, no cars, nothing like that. We [the extended family] loaded what we had on our yaks and horses, and left in the night ” …for journeys of hundreds of miles, through treacherous mountains. Several of the man’s young family members died of exposure and disease on the journey, and one of the young cousins, aged 8, was called upon to do their powa (the Tibetan Buddhist ritual for the dead). For the survivors of the escape/expulsion, there were years of life in refugee camps, and gradual resettlement in Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan; then on to the Far East, Europe, South and North America.

The 8-year old who was charged with administering powa for his siblings grew up to become the Venerable Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, worked briefly as representative of the Nyingma community in the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, founded Ari Bhod Center for Tibetan Cultural Preservation in Tehachapi, California, and was the resident lama for the dharma center T’hondup Ling in Los Angeles until his death in 2009. Lama Gyatso and his students take as central to their practice a commitment to preserving to the minutest detail the Nyingma tradition of Tibeten Buddhism.

Lama Gyatso was author and driving force behind a unique mandala project underway at Ari Bhod and which is the subject of an exhibition at the Hammer Museum scheduled to open Tuesday, October 26 until ending ceremonies on November 7. The exhibit is installation, performance, and meditation all at once, with a sacred complex of meaning. Four Tibetan lamas of the Nyingma tradition will be in public view working in the gallery for an 11-day period, constructing a sand mandala, an intricate design which radiates symmetrically from a center. It is made of different colored sands painstakingly sprinkled into place a few grains at a time using a tubular pencil-shaped implement. The mandala design itself is both a sacred artwork which has its own symbolic content, and a graphic representation of a 3-dimensional mandala, which can be of a particular size, depending on its purpose. Alongside the work of the lamas, the Hammer will have on display the one-of-a-kind 3-dimensional mandala and scale model of the planned 4-story shrine Zangdok Palri, to be built in the mountain retreatland of Ari Bhod.

Zangdok Palri, which translates as “copper-colored mountain”, in the Nyingma tradition, is the sacred mystical mountain dwelling place (“celestial mansion”) of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, who established Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet). Under Lama Gyatso’s guidance, the 3-dimensional mandala was researched and constructed by Tibetan master artist Pema Namdol Thaye. Along with Lama Gyatso until his passing away, Pema Thaye has partnered with eminent architect Michael Rotondi in drawing up the intricate plans for this project, which will be on display at the Hammer as well. Pema will also be showing his Thangka painting of Zangdok Palri, a different sort of visualization of the sacred edifice, depicting Guru Rinpoche ensconced on a delicate pink and white open lotus throne, flanked by his eight manifestations and other figures from the Nyingma pantheon.

The elaborate and profound iconography of the artwork on display, concentrated into these multidimensional works, represents even more than meets the eye, on many levels. The time and place of this exhibit exists in the larger context of recent historical events in Tibet, which are having repercussions worldwide. The Zangdok Palri project is one of several which Ari Bhod has underway as part of an ongoing commitment to disseminate and preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the Nyingma tradition. The mission takes on an urgency as the situation in Tibet continues to devolve. Jamie Price, who is a founding member and executive director of Ari Bhod, speaks of her recent trip to Tibet:

I’ve been to Tibet three times: in 2000, 2004 with Lama Gyatso, and just this year. I have witnessed first hand over these years the decimation of a cultural heritage.The first time I went was as a tourist. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism… Lhasa wasn’t developed at all, maybe a few hotels, but other than that, pretty wide open. The second time (2004) when we went with Lama Gyatso there was a lot more commercial activity, stores and such. You started to see signs in Chinese with the  Tibetan  underneath and smaller. This time (2010), the development was exponential. The fields outlying the city of Lhasa have been completely developed into Chinese factories and there are a lot of  stores. You see commercial advertising everywhere, which was previously unheard of. The Tibetan language is being replaced with  Chinese so you are starting to see more signs written just in the Chinese language. That in and of itself is a really significant change.

The control that the Chinese government has over the city is very much in evidence. In particular, the main temple just outside of the Potala Palace and square that is the center of  Tibetan spiritual life, where countless pilgrims come to circumambulate and make offerings at the shrines inside the temple–is highly regulated. Chinese police are photographing everybody at all times. The photographers with the big paparazzi lenses aren’t dressed in military uniforms at all, they look like “undercover” agents (although they’ve got that huge camera so it’s pretty obvious.) They are on the rooftops and they are on the ground, they’ve got their camera lens in your face, and they are documenting everybody and everything at all times. In that particular square they have a sensitivity to people gathering and protesting. Generally it has a very controlled repressive feel.

We left the city and went out we went to Dorjedrak monastery. On the one hand, it was incredible to find there a new sprouting of dharma, where for the first time in years,  since 1959, they had lamas come and bestow Gang-Ter (Northern Treasures) transmissions and empowerments– which is extraordinary. There were several hundred monks there and you could see authentic Dharma being practiced, real kindness pervading, real Dharma. It was so moving to see this happening…but then we were told that the monks, in order to go anywhere, have to get permits from the police. They can’t just come and go. There is a resident policeman at every location at that monastery as well. So for us to seek participation to stay or visit, it’s up to the policeman, not the resident Lama.

Samye, where King Trisong Detsen invited Guru Rinpoche to come to Tibet, in 9th century, and where he then built the Samye monastery  is an incredible historical location for the Nyingma lineage in particular.When you go there you can see the Chinese government making efforts to restore the place…but with tourists in mind, not with the goal of restablishing Dharma or preserving authenticity. You see the damage that was done to the existing ancient murals and mandalas: eyes scratched out of the Buddhas, and in the temples themselves the murals completely deteriorated. But as they are repainting things, they are doing it without any regard to proportion, accuracy or authenticity at all. That’s not preservation. As they’re repainting, the authentic teachings that went with these works of art are being lost.

We  went to visit nearby Lama Gyatso’s family region, a stupa by the name of  Chung Riwoche an area where Tangtong Gyalpo (1361-1485) built  some of the first iron bridges  ever constructed. In this particular stupa traditionally you have mandalas painted on the walls, and statues. Every element is a piece of a whole instructional map–essentially for attaining awakening. We walked into this stupa and of the statues that remained, the heads were broken and the hearts were hacked out. The mandalas on the wall were faded and barely perceptible.

I don’t want to represent myself as an expert because I’m not, but what I understand is that  during the Cultural Revolution, a mass of people came through, they cut down the trees, shipped them off to China, and a lot of people felt impassioned about destroying some of these spiritual representations, and that’s when a lot of this happened.

I can assure you that there is no one left who could tell you what existed there.

We are at the point of authentic Tibetan culture in Tibet being lost , which is why I feel so passionate about accomplishing these projects here, particularly to the level of detail that we plan to adhere to in the Zangdok Palri USA, the 4-story mandala. It simply won’t exist if we don’t do it. And those with the knowledge to really help accomplish this with accuracy are very old. Once they are gone, this knowledge is gone. It’s not like there is some library somewhere  where all this information exists. A lot is in their heads.

It was Lama’s passion and now ours to do what we can while we have the opportunity.”

I posed some questions to Pema Thaye about the project, starting with how those who may have with little or no familiarity with the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition might approach the sacred work on display.

Pema Thaye: You can simply observe the mandala with an open heart and mind without too many pre-conceived concepts and other distracting thoughts and just allow whatever you feel at that moment to arise. It is best to have a clear, open mind and view it with appreciation. By simply doing this you will get some subtle positive effect which you will probably be able to feel as a kind of sense of peace and awe.

The mandala is one of the most holy objects in all existence. Its design was given to humans by divine beings whose sole motivation was pure, non-discriminative compassion for every sentient being – no matter what race, color or religion. Because of the divinity and celestial nature of the structure it is the artist’s responsibility to depict it in as beautiful and accurate a manner as possible. This serves a two-fold purpose:

• To honor the divinity of the structure and represent it as an offering to the deities.

• The celestial beauty, if the artist is successful in creating it in this manner, will draw more beings to view it and thus increase the number of people who are then able to receive the blessings.

RV: The design of the mandala dates back to what point in time?

PT: Many traditional cultures use the circular design of the mandala in their rituals to some extent. In the case of Tibetans and their use of the mandala in Tibetan Buddhism, it dates back  to Buddha Shakyamuni, then later introduced by Guru Padmasambhava at the same time as Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century. As far as pictorial records go, antique thangkas and cave paintings have been discovered from circa 9th century, but the textual source goes back to Buddha Shakyamuni time. As far as the actual starting point of mandalas in the celestial realm, they have been there for eternity.

RV: Who was responsible for its design?

PT: For Buddhist mandalas in general one could say the historical Buddha is the first divine architect. Similarly, in layman’s terms, each successive deity manifests their own mandala/ celestial palace within the parameters of what the Buddha introduced.

RV: Imagine we are standing facing, say, the east portico of Zangdok Palri. Can you describe the imagery we would see and what it symbolizes?

PT: On the east portico of the main floor of Zangdok Palri we would be standing on the second floor of a four-story structure. Looking inside, the main imagery we would see would be a life-size statue of Guru Padmasambhava facing the east and seated upon a lotus throne, which is raised so that his eyeline is higher than the viewer or any of the other figures around him. He will be surrounded by a series of approximately 90 smaller raised lotus seats, upon which sit the various deities of his retinue.

This symbolizes the Nirmanakaya level (the human form) of the abode of Guru Padmasambhava.

RV: There is a very strong and vibrant color palette…can you elaborate on the significance of the different colors (red, royal blue, light blue, green, orange, gold). Why is there no black, gray, or brown?

PT: The colors of the walls relate to the colors of the four directions and the five Dhayani Buddhas. In this case the usual yellow of the south direction is replaced by blue – lapis lazuli – which is the healing color of the Medicine Buddha.

Overview of the colors of the walls:

Red – west: the precious stone of ruby. Signifies Amitabha Buddha, from  which Guru Padmasambhava arose (from his heart as a red Hri).

Green – north: the precious stone jade. Signifies activity.

White – east: the precious stone of crystal. Signifies  purity.

Blue – south: precious stone lapis lazuli. Signifies healing. These healing qualities encompass every direction, not just south.

Other main colors:

Gold – precious metal. As a celestial mansion it should be made from the most precious and durable substances available.

Copper – signifies the element of Zangdok Palri.

The vibrancy of the colors emulates the quality of precious stones as much as possible through paint, since it was not practical or affordable to use real precious stones.

No black, gray or brown are used as these colors are not associated with anything precious or significant to this structure. Also, with all the other colors, there’s no room or necessity for these colors.

RV: What will the interior be like?

PT: The interior will be even more elaborate than the exterior. Apart from over 100 statues, some of which are life-size, there is almost an unlimited amount of traditional ornamentation which is crafted onto the architectural structure itself.

RV: Have there been any changes to the design of this sort of mandala since its original conception?

PT: The original concept should never be changed; otherwise we lose its profundity. However, the outcome depends upon the experience, full knowledge and skill of the artist creating the mandala to enhance the aesthetic quality– especially with the interpretation of 3-dimensional mandalas.

RV: Can you tell us about the process of building this scale model? How long did it take? What sort of materials did you use? What was the most difficult and/or painstaking aspects of the project?

PT: The very beginning of the initial concept for building a Zangdok Palri monument began a few years before 2000 when I met Lama Gyatso. During the time I was here doing the Shi-tro mandala [another 3-dimensional mandala which is currently installed at Ari Bhod’s retreatland] in 2000, we discussed it further. I then completed a concept line drawing in 2002 while concurrently doing specific Zangdok Palri research.

The research involved compiling information from more than 15 different texts (sourcing them and studying them), and consulting various high Lamas to glean the information they had gathered over the years on the subject, including Lama Gompo Tenzing (Ashang-La) [Pema’s uncle and teacher].

This process continued over the ensuing years until I arrived back in the U.S. for this specific project in 2007 – and continued until the completion of the model in April 2009. From these two activities I gained approximately 75% of the information I required to design the structure. For the remaining 25% I had to rely upon all my years of artistic training, research and experience with mandala and celestial structures in general, as well as painting, sculpturing and crafting in all mediums.

The resulting structure is the culmination of 30 years of this, because the structure is a celestial design outlined by the Buddhas themselves–there is no manual out there as we get in these modern days; no step-by-step how-to guide, especially in the case of  a mandala such as Zangdok Palri. So I had to make significant interpretations based on my experience of 3D celestial measurements to bring it to its current form. So you could say it was the research that was the most painstaking and time-consuming aspect of the project for me.

In December 2007 I began the initial blueprints and completed these in approximately four months (not counting the time to create the initial concept drawing of Zangdok Palri in 2002). This was the most difficult aspect of the project – designing it in such a way as to bring what is essentially a celestial visualization tool, into a functioning mundane structure was quite difficult.

These plans were then shown to Michael Rotondi, [who is working alongside Pema to address practical structural and zoning code issues].  Michael requested a small model for his team to better understand  the architectural complexity of the structure. This was completed in approximately four months. It was a bare wooden structure with no ornamentation, but a complete replica of the larger one architecturally.

I then commenced the larger model which is currently on display at the Hammer in August 2008, completing it in April 2009. The materials used were primarily wood for the architectural skeleton and some carved ornamentation and trims, polyurethane resin for much of the detailed work, cast from a wax master sculpture, semi-precious stones and bead ornamentation and some metal work.

[ I have to insert here that the painting work on the model was no small feat. Pema, a highly skilled artisan himself, had the help of a small, talented crew of  artists and patient determined practitioners who could stay up all hours of the night painting perfect ornamental friezes.]

RV: In Tibet are there any monuments like Zangdok Palri? Were ordinary people allowed access to sacred spaces such as ZangdokPalri or were they only available for special religious ceremonial purposes?

PT: There is one Zangdok Palri monument in Kathok, Tibet. Anyone is allowed entrance to the general areas, but there are some special sacred areas and only those initiated into, and undertaking the practices to which these areas are dedicated, are allowed to enter.

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition has been scattered like seeds, and now on exists on almost every continent of the world. In forms both extremely pure to extremely diluted, Tibetan Buddhism is taking root, finding converts, and challenging Westerners steeped in scientism, modernism, and materialism. Robert Thurman, in his introduction to the Bantam edition of Tibetan Book of the Dead, speaks of the essential contrast of minds: “The Tibetan character [perceives] all things as infused with spiritual value, as interconnected with mental states…that the spiritual is itself an active energy in nature, subtle but more powerful than the material.” The active dialogue between western perspectives and the cultural-traditional mindset has been a source of inquiry and introspection for architect Michael Rotondi, who is charged with making the Zangdrok Palri mandala structurally sound in the remote mountain terrain where it will be built.

“The first thing you learn”, he says, speaking of the Stupa project he worked on in Santa Cruz, “is that this sort of project is not about interpreting. In the language of contemporary architecture you could view the elaborate ornamentation of Zangdok Palri as pastiche, but try to remove any small part of it and you have erred. In conversation with Lama Gyatso, I came to see that it is our cultural conditioning that causes us to regard the ornamentation or peculiarities of  the Zangdok Palri mandala as cursory, or as matters of convenience or taste. If you remove one gateway, a whole type of consciousness will be lost. Similarly visualization–so detailed and specific in this mandala, corresponding to spiritual realms of essential compassion–is something we actually practice all the time here in the West, in our blogs, in our internet…we live in a universe of visualization, but so often with denser lines, infused with fear, as in politics and news media.”

For the culmination of the exhibit at the Hammer Museum, the artist Pema Thaye and architect Michael Rotondi will be having a conversation about the traditional art on display, and the Lamas will dissolve the mandala and carry the sand off to the ocean to return it, transformed, back into the world.

Above is the representation of the Rigdzin Duepa Sand Mandala that the monks will be constructing at the Hammer Museum commencing October 26, 2010.

* Special thanks to Joseph Dick for rigorous fact checking


  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Astonishing post, Rita. A lot to absorb. Will formulate a more coherent response once I’ve had time to fully injest this rich material…!
    Guy Z.

  2. Roxanne Rogers says:

    Thanks for alerting us to this event. Very special.

  3. Kristin Norton says:

    We’re going to do our level best to get Cory there Rita. Dan and I saw the ceremony about 6 years ago. Unforgettable. Thank you for the reminder. xKristin

  4. Just thought I’d better let you know that where I say I started the large Zangdok Palri model in August 2008 – it should be 2007.
    Good job on the article Rita.

  5. Phila McDaniel says:

    Please contact me regarding the restoration work at Samye. I have some questions regarding the date of the paintings being restored. Were parts of them from the originals in the 8th century or are they from later restorations after fires and earthquakes and during the cultural revolution ?

    I am paraticularly interested in the Padmasamvafa murals and the date of those existing paintings or fragments of those.

    I have been to Tibet – Central, Southern and Eastern areas 35 times since 1979 but last visit to Samye was in 1980 and again in 1984. Last visit to Eastern Tibet was in 2007. I will be there again in 2013 when all areas are planned to be open in Chamdo and Aba areas.

    Thank you for any additional information about Samye murals.
    Phila McDaniel

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