The flowers that make the Buddha’s body are three-dimensional. Lama Tashi Norbu’s Accepting Flower Culture is a contemporary collage of bright color in paint and wood, and in the petals he sees a gulf and a bridge between worlds.
His Buddha is sitting in Williamstown this winter, near the door into Across Shared Waters at the Williams College Museum of Art. The figure has the measurements of the traditional Buddha, Norbu said, the outline in silhouette, filled with images of living plants.
For Norbu they represent the challenge of leaving Tibet and creating new roots in the Netherlands. Both cultures can weave flowers into their lore and sense of identity, he said — the lotus in Tibet and the tulip in his new home. He was speaking from his own museum and cultural center, the Museum of Contemporary Tibetan Art in Emmen, near Amsterdam.
‘Both cultures can weave flowers into their lore and sense of identity — the lotus in Tibet and the tulip in Amsterdam.’
He has painted them over a background of half-translucent words. The background holds a mantra, said Across Still Waters’ guest curator, Ariana Maki. Norbu is repeating words spoken to invoke a deity, this one for Avalokiteśvara, a divine being in Buddhist teaching who embodies compassion.
In Tibet, this kind of incantation appears carved in stones and written on prayer flags, she said. Here Norbu has covered the words with a white pigment, and for Maki that light scrim of color brings back memories from her own time in the Himalayas.
“It’s common to whitewash monuments as an act of merit-making,” she said. “If an astrologer says you have a hard time coming, you can whitewash a stupa.”
A stupa is a sacred place, a round domed room or building (large or small), sometimes a memorial or a place to hold relics. When she sees the background here, it reminds her of seeing stupas refreshed and rejuvenated with aspirations.
Buddhist thought and tradition weave into the contemporary innovations in Norbu’s artwork. He is trained as thangka painter, a Tibetan tradition going back to. Before he came to study Western European fine art in Belgium, he said, he studied for five years or more in Dharamsala, in India, to learn the tradition in precise detail.
“During that five years, the first two years are studying about the theory of Buddhist and Tibetan art,” he said, “mainly studying about the different figures of the Buddhas.
So we had to study 1,000 Buddhas, male and female Buddhas, and mandalas, Tibetan mandalas.
“Then we would go through drawing sessions — for the next whole year we have to do only the drawings … I think Tibegan schools, thangka painters are extraordinarily good because of that.
“When we graduate from thangka painting school … we are supposed to be completing the whole monastery with a drawing, and it is done through a team, so one (painter) should be extremely good at doing all drawing.”
One artist begins drawing in outlines, he said, and then the second artist starts putting in flat colors, and then the third doing the shading, and then the fourth — and the whole team that works like that.
Among the 1,000 forms of Buddha, Norbu’s painting takes the form of Shakyamuni Buddha, he explained. In Tibetan understanding, Shakyamuni is the fourth Buddha that has come to this world, and he is the most recent incarnation.
He also appears here in a traditional thangka painting, out of a tradition centuries old. Lamas who traveled and taught would bring thangka paintings with them to illustrate their lessons and stories.
‘Until now we have had four Buddhas,” Norbu said, “and we are supposed to have a thousand Buddhas on this earth, to help all beings.’ — Lama Tashi Norbu
Here, Maki has encouraged contemporary artists to choose or create work the see in conversation with the thangkas in this show. Norbu looks toward a thangka that chronicles the Buddha’s past lives, Maki said. The thangka shows the transformations Shakyamuni has come through to become a Buddha, she said. He has gone through lived experiences to learn generosity, compassion, an understanding of time.
Many Tibetan Buddhists believe each person has had hundreds, thousands of previous lives, she said, and from them, cumulative experience will determine their next rebirth.
“Until now we have had four Buddhas,” Norbu said, “and we are supposed to have a thousand Buddhas on this earth, to help all beings. They say until all living beings are enlightened, Buddhas will come to this earth, so the world is not yet finished. So I chose this Buddha touching the earth.”
Flowers can also give tangible, physical form to an idea in Buddhism. Norbu gave a sketch in simple terms. Tibetan Buddhist has an idea that often gets translated into English as emptiness — but it really means something more like openness.
“(It’s) a way of looking at experience,” he explains in notes on his artwork. “It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.”
A rose is real and living and complex, he said. When a human sees a rose, they see and smell and touch the living flower, and they see and feel the meanings and experiences and metaphors they associate with roses.
The openness he’s talking about is a way of knowing the difference. It’s an openness of mind, of mind, a way of being absorbed in the world.