Thankas in Proportion

-a dispatch from the grief process

[edit:I’ve added a few lines about the TCHRD organization]

The Public Domain Review has an interesting piece on an old book about Tibetan art. They write:

An eighteenth-century pattern book consisting of 36 ink drawings depicting precise iconometric guidelines for depiction of the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures. Written in Newari script with Tibetan numerals, the book was apparently produced in Nepal for use in Tibet. The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Sanskrit rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, colour of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.

You can see it all here The Tibetan Book of Proportions

When you watch Tibetan students in class learning to make thankas, this is what they learn. It’s complicated and mathematical, not freeform drawing. Also every element that goes into one has a reason for being there and a deep symbolic significance. You can’t learn it in a month of evening courses.

I wrote on Facebook a while back about Tibetan musical scores like these.

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In some thankas, like in some temple decoration, mantras and instructions for their chanting (like the notation above) are included. This makes it not only iconographic but gives it the status of a yantra, which is a multi-dimensional and multi-sense encompassing spiritual device or machine to assist in changing consciousness. It takes a lot of knowledge of multiple disciplines to be able to create a good thanka. It takes some research and study to be able to decode the depth of what you are looking at. They are not “just” religious iconography but whole windows into the Tibetan belief system. They are not just “cultural products” for tourists but are integral to the cohesion of communities.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Manoj & I used to live across from both the Tibetan Homes School (run by a charitable organization SOS Children’s Homes ) and the CST (Central School for Tibetans run by the Tibetan Gov. in Exile ) and they teach this art to some of the older students. The children in the SOS Home are orphaned children of refugees. Manoj was very close to people in the Tibetan community after he lost his parents [his mother when he was 6 and his father when he was 13]. His relatives did all they could but they didn’t live in Mussoorie so many Tibetan people helped support him in a lot of ways. His father also had had a lot of friends in the Tibetan community and worked with them sometimes. In communities that are somewhat off the beaten track and where ways of life are communal, people help each other out and hold each other up when their social structure collapses. That is one of the principle purposes of community. People are integrated on all sorts of levels. This is very different from a capitalist based network society. [I’ll have more to say on that in the future]

Once in a while if I was walking by and class was in session I’d go in and sit on the bench in the back & watch the young artists for a while. There is a Buddhist temple, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist temple in India, on the grounds just outside of both of these schools. There are monasteries and institutes of higher learning, like the Sakya Center, and the big Mindrolling Monastery complex about 30 kilometers away in Dehra Dun. All of these things are connected and support the Tibetan refugee community.

Over the years I bought a few of the thankas from these students [from the schools actually as the students don’t sell them individually] as the proceeds help support the schools and got them “framed” at Mindrolling for which one gives a donation. This is all a cooperative effort, as are many things in the Tibetan [and in much of the Indian] community that I am aware of in Mussoorie. [I’m not going to generalize or try to “speak for” the community there. This is only my observation and experience.]The students are not just taught the techniques to make pretty and “exotic” pictures. They have a far larger social context.

As an aside..if you want to give money to a Tibetan cause or any cause that’s doing actual work on the ground the SOS Homes are really working hard with that money. I’ve seen it in person. I’ve met the kids in these schools. So many of these western “consciousness raising” organizations like UNFFT (run by some countess who dabbles in all kinds of charities when she’s not attending galas or yachting) and Free Tibet are bullshit organizations run by white people (check their boards and executive) for other white people to make themselves think they’re actually doing something and also to bring in substantial salaries and/or attention mainly to themselves. They are parasitic organizations that boost their own profiles by exploiting the tragedy in Tibet and Tibetan people’s work in my opinion. These kinds of organizations tag along at marches and demonstrations organized by Students for a Free Tibet (another hard working worthy group run by and for Tibetan people) for example, contribute nothing to organizing or support and congratulate themselves heartily for whatever they think they’re doing. It’s lifestyle activism at it’s worst. [I have so much to say about these things but I’ll save it for another post] They want to work for Tibetan people without actually working FOR or WITH Tibetans in many cases. If you want to join or support an organization to help Tibetan people find one that’s run by Tibetans for Tibetans or at least has a lot of Tibetan people actually working at it and in executive roles, not just as figurehead “advisors” or as in some cases all white people.

In terms of consciousness raising, here’s the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy 2013 Annual Report and Special Report on Re-education Through Labor. TCHRD is on the front lines of monitoring the situation in Tibet. Many of their publications are available in English and Tibetan. They (along with some other organizations) do the on the ground work and compile many reports and get the news and photos that a lot of the Western “consciousness raising” organizations often republish without credit, or compensation.

On the economics side, there are plenty of thanka knockoffs in the marketplaces of the world. People buy them as tourist souvenirs and they are produced in “thanka factories” (often in Nepal) where artists (not all of whom are Tibetan or Buddhist) are trained to produce them as consumer goods for low wages. The colors tend to be garish and the images cliché. Some of this is due to many Tibetan people’s feelings that the selling of religious artifacts for profit is wrong, so others have stepped in to make it a business. When they are sold in monasteries, or when you get the framing done at a monastery for example, their purpose is religious and communal not merely decorative or for the tourist trade.

Those are some of the many reasons I dislike the “knock offs” and those comic book kind of drawings “inspired by” Tibetan people’s art.


One of the reasons I’m thinking about this recently is that I’m involved in a photo swap with some of Manoj’s friends and family. I’m sorting and sending photos to them and they are doing likewise for me. It’s like trying to weave over the emptiness with memories.

but still it’s like this

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake


Here is Buddha statue at Mindrolling Monastery, Clement Town, Dehra Dun, taken from the upper level of the temple.

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Here is one of the signs within the monastery complex.

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Helpful Imperialism and Genocide

The article What the Dalai Lama Should Do Now in Huff-Po by journalist Stephen Talty is quite ridiculous.

He writes:

The Dalai Lama and his followers should march to the Tibetan border and demand to cross back into their ancestral homeland. His Holiness should be accompanied by some of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled with him after 1959, along with young men and women in their teens and twenties who have never even seen the dun-colored hills and valleys of Kham and Amdo.

All of this to engineer a photo op of HHDL with supporters being turned away. This would be about the stupidest, most suicidal thing that could possibly be done.  It’s full of naïve romanticism, a faith in the Chinese regime that is seriously misplaced,  an absurd faith in the global media, as well as a severe lack of knowledge of:

  • the geo-political forces at play in the region,
  • the living conditions of Tibetans inside India
  • the unity of Tibetan refugees in various parts of India. They are not one big robotic group that will follow HHDL into the face of lines upon lines of heavily armed Chinese troops and you’d better believe those new railroads and airstrips in Tibet would be immediately full of troops ready rush to the front to mow down any massive migration.
  • the families of Tibetans that are now tied to Indian families through marriage
  • the stateless refugee status of many Tibetans and their non-recognition by other governments
  • the willingness of India and Nepal to militarily support the Tibetan refugees if shooting starts. They won’t, to put it bluntly. The Nepalese army is currently being trained by Chinese advisors.
  • conditions within Tibet to support refugees should they all return. That includes the ominous possibility of lengthy “re-education”.
  • the interests of Western powers and their populations. Do you really think Kim Kardasian’s followers are going to rise up for the Tibetan cause just because of a photo? They might wear a bracelet if the accompanying video is viral enough but that’s about as far as the action will go.

The author also writes:

The expedition would not only retrace the route Buddhism took from India to Tibet, it would echo other marches, such as Gandhi’s salt campaign and the two Selma marches. In those, oppressed people risked their lives to demand what was due them. The Tibetans’ cause is as good and as just as the others.

Oh yes let’s reenact some Buddhist history out of sentimentality just for good measure. And throw in other figures the West can identify with for good measure.

And it’s not like border marches haven’t happened before. They were put down pretty quickly. In 2008 for example  Indian police stop Tibetan marchers 

Video from the scene showed Indian officers dragging the marchers into police vans, sometimes as many as four officers per protester. Once inside the vehicles, the protesters furiously banged on windows and continued to chant, "Free Tibet!"

The protesters, who planned to reach the border for a confrontation with Chinese authorities just before the Beijing Olympics begins in August, were only three days and 75 km into the march when police stopped the march.

So perhaps a little bit of research on the part of the journalist would have been helpful.

Beyond that the Chinese government does not pride itself on it’s sense of justice, fairness or equal treatment. Sometimes such words are used but they have particular meanings that fall within Maoist ideology. Used in the Huff-Po article, they are projections of the author’s own imperialist tradition which is what Gandhi and King leveraged in their fight for freedom. [more on that in an upcoming post]

China has no shame when it comes to it’s own expansionist objectives. Expansion of the revolution is a good thing. Nor has it any shame when it comes to rolling over human rights to meet those objectives. Enforcing ideology is not only a good thing but a necessary thing in order to achieve the state’s objectives. The revolutionary codeword for that is “struggle”. If one has any familiarity with the doctrines that underpin the contemporary Chinese state that is obvious.

While Mao may not be cited with the frequency he once was, his adherents, along with the new generation of neo-Maoists who mix in free-market methodology as an expansionist tool, or weapon, depending on your definition, maintain firm ideological control despite what might appear to be capitalist leanings. Selling that rope globally! It was all outlined long ago by Mao and company.

Much of what had been written then is still in effect. For example see the notes:

On the Policies for Our Work in Tibet — Directive of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (April 6, 1952)

Talk with Tibetan Delegates (Excerpts) (October 8, 1952)

Don’t Hit Out In All Directions (June 6, 1950)

Chu Teh, Vice-Chairman of the Central People’s Government, made the following statement on May 23, on the conclusion of the Agreement concerning the peaceful liberation of Tibet (May 23, 1951)

If you read all that or other writings of the Chinese Central Committee membership over time then you will note the frequency of the term “Han majority”. Keep that in mind when you read these couple of quotes that were selected to be in Mao’s Little Red Book:

We must affirm anew the discipline of the Party, namely:

(1) the individual is subordinate to the organization;
(2) the minority is subordinate to the majority;
(3) the lower level is subordinate to the higher level; and
(4) the entire membership is subordinate to the Central Committee.

Whoever violates these articles of discipline disrupts Party unity.

"The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War" (October 1938), Selected Works, Vol. II, pp. 203-04.*


One requirement of Party discipline is that the minority should submit to the majority. If the view of the minority has been rejected, it must support the decision passed by the majority. If necessary, it can bring up the matter for reconsideration at the next meeting, but apart from that it must not act against the decision in any way.

"On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party" (December 1929), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 110. [emphasis mine]

imageThese days the author of the quotes is not mentioned much but he is certainly not absent from Chinese society. His image continues to gaze over Tiananmen Square just as it always has and of course his mausoleum there continues to attract devotees. His ideas, however modified continue to underpin the policies and ambitions of the Chinese government.

Certainly individual Chinese people will have their own views, just as individual Americans, Canadians, Indians or Australians do. That does not mean the average citizen is cognizant of the philosophies or details or intentions of it’s own government policies without some amount of study or inquiry. How many people in the West have made a Freedom of Information request to their own government? Or even know how to do it or even know that they can do it? How censored is it when you receive it back, if you even receive anything back? Do you think the average Chinese citizen can blithely make such inquiries of their government without incurring serious scrutiny?

This piece is the second one I’ve encountered in as many days wherein the author felt it necessary to tell the Tibetan people what to do.

The other was on the Facebook page of another one of those “awareness raising” charities. He wrote a note To honor 30 Tibetans, 30,000 Tibetans and 30,000 Supporters needed for this effort . basically telling people to contact the media more. That’s all well and good however the same guy posts his plea for fundraising for his personal charity effort all over other people’s pages full of pictures of self-immolated people. Overlooking Tibet has a post on that Using Tibetan martyrs for shameless judgmental self-promotion

What is it with these Western people who think they have better answers than people who are actually living in and living with the situation? Do they not realize that media and international relations regarding the Tibetan people have been going on for more than half a century? Do they think they have better PR ideas and connections than Richard Gere’s entourage? Do they not know that what they say is said by every second tourist that shows up on their 3 week trip to Dharamshala to every Tibetan person they meet?

“Why don’t you do this?”

“Why don’t you do that?”

…as if every random Tibetan person in the street or café or hotel or temple hasn’t thought about their situation at all, has the ear of the government and the power to magically make things happen for themselves just because some tourist who is completely ignorant of geo-political reality, makes a “brilliant” suggestion.

Like is said, ridiculous.