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The Jivamala
CHEN MA
The life of a Vajrayana Buddhist Nun

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Section XV - The Thangka Artist


I was now a real nun - I had the right clothes, and an initiation, and other nuns treated me like one of them. I was not a slave, or a servant, or even an unwanted daughter without marriage money. Nobody here cared about money, and they all liked my scroll.

I looked forward to the artist coming here. Drawing with colors would be wonderful. Lady Moon got some more cloth, but said that he was used to paper, and she would try to get some of that. It seemed that there wasn't much of it around.

I planned my major projects. I would draw a big Vajra Dakini in one of her more traditional moods. Then I would draw Vajrasattva, because he was very beautiful. Then I would draw a collection of yoginis. Then I would draw Lady Moon, and surprise her with the picture. I have heard that lamas have pictures of their founder at monasteries sometimes we can have our leader.

The days dragged by until the artist finally came. He was an old man, and he could not travel quickly. He also came with a big sack, which his attendant carried, on the mule that he rode. I think it was a mule at least it was a very strange looking horse.

He had white, wispy hair and his face was a network of wrinkles. His eyes were still sharp but you couldn't see them well underneath all his folds of skin. His face seemed loose and baggy.

He wore fur and hides. They looked warm, but as nuns, we avoid wearing animals. I wondered if he had any pets at home. I hoped his clothing wasn't the remains of his pets.

His attendant left with the mule he blew a horn so that we would know that the artist had arrived. The older nuns led him to the guesthouse, and I met him after he rested.

He looked at my scroll, and the nuns told him that I had had no instruction. He said,

Girl, you are talented. But there are rules for drawing. Everything has to be in proportion there are proper sizes for lotuses, Buddhas, and clouds. Yet your pictures are more detailed than those of many experts that is because you see these things. So, you are a visionary at this young age. This is an important skill for an artist we must always try to see the landscapes that we paint. Of course most of us are unsuccessful, and we draw according to formulas.

But you can really see this will add something special to your art. And I will tell you about proportion.

Section XVI

So I met the old man, and we started to work together. His name (or maybe his title) was Ocean of Beauty which I thought was a fine name. I would like a name like that if I ever became a famous artist like him.

He brought something like cloth, and we stretched it out to keep it still, by putting nails into the earth. Then he mixed up white paint, and painted it so it got hard. Then he got out a string, and he made circles, and with the straight edge of a square, he made lines. The whole white cloth had strong lines making it a square, and then it was full of lines and little squares and circles.

It didn't look like anything to me and I was disappointed. I said, "What is this supposed to be?" He laughed, and said,

Nothing little one, not yet. You are so impatient. The universe was slow in coming into being, and you took ten months in the belly of your mother. Relax all things take time.
He said to bring him his sacks, and there were pots of powders. He said, "This powder mixes with water, and this powder mixes with oil. If you mix the wrong powder, or use the wrong mixture, you will have bad paint. The color will be ugly, and it will fall off the picture in little pieces. Each color is unique - let's make a rainbow." He showed how little bits of color could mix together to create new colors, and how colors mixed together to create yet more colors. I was fascinated. I tried to remember every pot, and what was in it, and what you mixed it with to get other colors. He had a little dot of color on each pot, and a number, and a letter, so he would remember.

I asked, "Uncle, where do these powders come from?" He said, "Oh, from many places. Some come from cave walls, some from seaweed, some from coral in the sea, some from leaves and roots which have been dried. Each has a history."

I said, "Uncle, tell me their stories. You can pretend to be a searcher, and I will be the tree or the rock or the leaf."

He smiled and said, "Child, maybe on a long, cold night when we are awake next to a fire. But for now, you must learn your colors, and your measurements. Let us go over the colors, and then the dimensions of the pictures."

I found measuring pictures boring, but he said the bodhisattva must be in the exact center of the picture, or it would be imbalanced, and wrong. Great lamas always saw Buddhas exactly in the center, and drew them the same way.

I wondered whether to tell him how irritated Vajra Dakini would get at looking the same all the time, but I decided against it. I would learn his way and change things later.

He made me make measurements in the dirt to copy his and explained how far away different lines had to be from each other. I couldn't believe this was painting. Then he said he would show how it worked, and he sketched a Buddha on the lines. It was perfectly in the center, and I could see where the lines for his throne were, and for the lotus petals, and the clouds in the sky, and the dragonflies on the flowers at his feet.

You wouldn't think so to look at them, but the lines were actually useful. They said where everything went. He slowly worked on the Buddha, making robes, and halos. It looked very believable when it was done, and he gave it to the convent when it was finished. He said it was practice.

I was willing to learn this. He told me to rest there was much that I had to learn, and remember for tomorrow.

Section XVII

So we practiced the next day, and the next day, and the next. I do not know how many days I spent mixing paints and making measurements, but it seemed to last forever. Art obviously had little to do with images.

When I could tell him which powders to mix to get different colors, and measure out the Buddha mandala versus just a yogini dancing, he said that I was ready to start drawing deities.

He took some scrolls out of his sack, and some rectangular piles of paper. He said, "Now you must memorize these deities, so that you can recognize them and draw them." I thought, "Oh no, more boring memorization. This man must be the dullest artist ever born!"

He showed me scrolls with buddhas, and bodhisattvas, and bhairavas, and dakinis, and other beings, and pointed out their positions, ornaments, and the objects that they held. Each was different in some tiny way - from wearing a bracelet, to holding a jewel or a vajra. They seemed minor differences to me, but I had to remember them that was how people knew who was who. He would show me the pictures, and I would have to say who it was. Then he would tell me that name, and I had to draw the deity on the ground.

We went over and over the different deities, for days and days, until I could almost see them in my sleep (but not really, they were only pictures). Then he showed me scrolls with colors (the others, were just black lines on white), and I had to remember the colors that went with each deity. This we did this for several days.

One day I drooped over him, and he smiled. "Ah, child, you are afraid of learning things? Actually you have done very well your mind is retentive, and you learn fast. You are going through this twice as fast as many of my other students. "

I felt very sorry for them. He said, "Now, let us look at what we paint on." He took out cloth and different kinds of crinkly paper. He said, "All right, choose a deity to draw. This is practice cloth, very rough." Normally, I would choose Vajra Dakini to paint first, but not on rough practice cloth. She deserves the finest silk. I said, "I will draw the hawk-headed yogini, in honor of the Yogini's Nest."

He said, "Fine, a meaningful beginning. Now what do we do to start painting?" So I took the thorn-like nails and nailed the canvas into the ground, and painted it white, and made a big square of it. Then I did the measuring, even putting some extra lines on for clouds and other yoginis in the background. Then I decided on colors and mixed the paint. Then I drew the yogini, partly from the pictures (he had other yoginis), and partly from memory (I had seen her face). First I outlined her in twig charcoal, and then I got a very thin brush, and drew her outline in black. Then I dusted off the charcoal, and put different colors where they belonged. My teacher alternately watched, and napped.

When I was finished, I asked what he thought. He studied it and he said,

It is well done for a beginner, but it is much too individualistic. To be an artist is to produce what is in the heavens and on earth, but it is only done in certain ways that are acceptable. The images should be simple, so the light can shine through, and people can look through them to what is beyond. Your yogini is heavy she has mass weight, her limbs have light and shadow, and her head looks like a bird heavy with feathers. Your focus is the picture itself not what is beyond it. You need to have less focus upon the Yogini, and more upon her origin!
I said, "But that is what she looks like. When you see her, you don't see any origin behind her. She is there like a real bird, but she looks at you very intensely, and flies in the air. The scroll pictures are nice, but they don't look like the real deities." He said,
Girl, perhaps you see real deities, and perhaps you do not. That I cannot know. But I do know that emphasizing them as individuals is the wrong way to do art. I am training you to paint properly, so that your work will be able to hang in convents and monasteries, and people will respect your ability. Do you want people to respect your work?
I said, "I suppose so, but I want my pictures to look real, as if people could talk to the deities, and walk into their worlds." He said, "If you paint correctly, those who are skilled will be able to enter the picture. But since it is your first, and for your convent, let us find some strips of brocade to glue around it, and we will show it to your abbess."

We found some strips, and glued them around it. I thought it looked good, and like a worthy offering to the Yogini who led me from my family.

Section XVIII

We brought the picture to show Lady Moon, who was very impressed. She said, " It shows a different style, a unique style it is like the others, but different. You can really see the artist here."

Ocean of Beauty said, "That is true. Of course, the idea is for the artist to be invisible, and only for the deity to show. But invisibility must be learned, just like other skills."

Lady Moon said, "Nevertheless, all reality is both absent and present. Our young painter's presence in this picture is a gift. She will grow invisible soon enough." And she put the scroll with the Yogini up on the wall of the worship room, where others could see it.

We went outside and sat on some large rocks, and the artist said,

Let us discuss invisibility. When people are young, they want to stand out. They want to be heroes, great beauties, slayers of monsters, magicians, and warriors. They want people to pay attention to them and respect them, and they want live forever in stories.

But that is not the goal of our path. We who follow the Buddha and his teachings seek only goodness. We do not want to stand out. We want to be quiet and humble. In the vast universe, we are only pieces of dust, and we want to recognize our place. It is not our individual identities that are important we are only important as parts of the great celestial buddhas, who are the true beings to be glorified. As humans, we are nothing. And the buddhas themselves are only images who dance through a great empty sky of light, a great state of spirit and joy. We should be transparent to the Buddhas, as they are transparent to the infinite light.

I said, "Perhaps they are transparent, but sometimes they take on forms. The Vajra Dakini is constantly changing forms, and she always wants me to look at them. She does not tell me to look through her she wants me to look at her."

He said, "Your relationship is very unusual, and it sounds like the dakini is not doing her job. She should be liberating you from the world of forms."

I said, "Well, I am not a job for her I am sort of a vacation. The other devotees are work, but I am play." He said, "All right, tell me what you learned from her."

So I told him that I learned to love very strongly, for she was so loving- she loved me more than I loved my favorite pets. She showed me how to travel, and to see strange beings, and to follow her from world to world. She taught me not to be afraid of strange terrible looking beings they could be wrathful with kind Buddhas inside. She said all beings had a spark of the infinite inside, and should be respected.

He said, "You have an unusual curriculum, but I am not sure you are learning what you need to know. Tell her that you must learn about the Great Void of Light, and to leave behind your ego." I said, "She talks about that sometimes, but says it is for later, when I am old and ugly and wrinkled."

He said, "Like me?" I tried to protest but he smiled, "She is playing with you. But it is good play, and it is true. You are young. In fact you are too young to be doing this. Your skills are advanced in some areas, and non-existent in others. You really should have a tutor."

I said, "I am poor, and I could not ask Lady Moon for that she has brought you, and that is a tremendous favor even if I don't like drawing all those lines. She would never bring another our convent is poor."

He said, "I have a friend who has taught in the monasteries. He is very wise, and very spiritually advanced. He could teach you some of the things you need to know. I will see if he wishes to do so. Meanwhile, you must understand the need for invisibility."

I said, "I suppose so, but it depends on what is important to you. I don't really want to be a famous painter, if I am only allowed to paint one way. It is like Vajra Dakini. She is always changing. I want to be an artist with many different styles." He said, "You could design backgrounds for wandering actors, or paint bowls. But outside monasteries, there is not much use for art. Who else cares about deities? Maybe you could make masks for children. But religious people want pictures to look like maps to show them places to go. If you start adding extra roads and mountains to the maps, people will get confused. They will not be able to use them. Your pictures should be useful.

I said, "I think pictures have other uses. I think they can be signs of love, for people who want to remember the people they love. I made pictures of my pets even of my ox and he was sort of ugly. But they can be beautiful in pictures even more beautiful than in real life. Pictures can show how you feel - I draw differently when I am happy and when I am sad. And they can give people in plain rooms something to look at."

He said, "These are not art. Signs of love, expressions of emotion, entertainment for rooms these are all glorification of worldly things. Art is otherworldy it does not decorate a plain room. It tells how to get out of it. Art is not for emotion deities would look different on a good and a bad day. Your personal life is not relevant to art it just distorts it."

I said,

Or improves it. But you are the artist, and I am your student, and I will obey you. I will learn to do things correctly, so that you will approve. But when I have shown that I can paint the way others like, I will someday paint the way I like. I think art is a big area, and people can do it many ways. But for now, I am your servant.
He smiled. "It will not last, this servanthood!"

Section XIX

So I learned to paint the way artists did, which is disciplined and orderly, and nothing like things really look (unless you stand still from some strange angle, and the Buddha also stands still). My teacher stayed a month longer than he planned to and we had many talks. I asked Vajra Dakini to visit him and show him some of her forms, and then he understood what I was talking about.

She said, "It his not his karma, but sometimes there is a moment when it is possible. We shall see." And a few weeks later, he told me that the dakini had visited him in a dream, and done one of her dances. He asked if I had asked her to visit, and I said yes, but it was up to her she doesn't listen to me. He was impressed nevertheless, and said he understood why I wanted to paint the way I did.

I did paint Vajra Dakini, and other buddhas and bodhisattvas, and I begged my teacher to let me paint Lady Moon, for she was my bodhisattva. He did not want me to, but he let me at last. I drew her on a scroll, and anybody could recognize her.

Before he was to leave, we presented these scrolls together to the Yogini's Nest. Lady Moon bowed, and accepted them she did not know what was on the scrolls. She looked really funny when she saw her portrait her mouth drooped open, and all the nuns looked shocked or giggled.

I told her my last abbess was a monster to me, and that she was the bodhisattva who had saved me. She said that she understood my point, but that I must never call another nun a monster. Even if I didn't like her, all souls were seeking liberation. I said all right, but I still thought to myself that she was a monster, and she wasn't seeking liberation very hard.

Lady Moon would not hang her portrait, so I said that I would keep it. I will too, until she dies then her portrait can keep her smile with us.

A messenger was sent out to get Ocean of Beauty's assistant, and they left on a sunny morning. He spoke to Lady Moon for a long time before he left.

She called me in, and said that he wanted to send a tutor for me. She said that they did not have the money for this, but he knew his friend would want to come, money or no. Also, his friend had long sought real vision, and no lama could give it to him. But since I could gift him with the dakini's presence, perhaps his friend too could get a glimpse. The teaching would be worth it for him, just for this.

I told her I could not guarantee what the dakini would do. I was her servant. She was not mine. Lady Moon, smiled and said, "Oh, he knows that. But he thinks his friend is willing to gamble. Also, he thinks his friend will want to write down some of the things the dakini says to you." I said that that would be good, because I always forget them.

And in a few months, we got a message saying that the old wise man wished to visit and teach. He came down the path to our building, and asked to speak with Lady Moon. They came to meet me, and his eyes were more intense ones than I had ever seen, except for the old lama who brought me. I was drawn to those eyes he looked so wise like he understood everything. I bowed before him. His name was Karma Sky Of Liberation.


To continue with the life of Chen Ma, click on the link below :

Chen Ma's Life Continued


Introduction | The Bhairava or Spiritual Guide | Lives of Spiritual Weakness | Lives of Spiritual Awakening | Conclusion

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