The poignancy is that these traditions are endangered, soon to become extinct. Like the beauty of a sunset. You can feel it in the exuberance of a Tibetan dance, or the melodious all of a mountain song, or the special colors from a Tibetan artist’s life.
I want you to know that the songs and tales herein aren’t mine. They’re from Nima and Tibetans of his ilk, from ones who know that in so many ways they are the last Tibetan people. Those last ones will leave the world with the final word on what “Tibetan”
is. Even if certain hands-off policies prevent immediate extinction of the labeled ethnicities of Western China, the gravity pull of modern life presents a death threat to the lives and cultures of nomads and subsistence farmers, the traditional Tibetans.
Born into this reality, Nima’s efforts are towards attaining a modern Tibetan identity. This is a part of the story of his paintings. You are reading a book of
stories about those paintings. The on-going talk is the tale of what gave rise to or was touched by those paintings. If everyone who ever stopped and stared could also choose to leave a few of their words behind, what a story it could be!
Tibetan reality was something I was intensely curious about. The glimpses I gleaned from reading books by or about Tibetans left me puzzled. To give just one example, Trungpa Rinpoche states that “the wrathful deities represent hope and the peaceful deities represent fear.” How could this be. In my world there was no hope to be found in fear, that source of mental and psychic paralysis which blocked out hope. In my world the
peaceful entities or states of mind were what offered hope – hope of forgiveness, hope that I could be accepted notwithstanding my various obvious faults. It was inconceivable to me that wrathful states could be taken as offering room for negotiation, manipulation,
getting one’s way, while the implacability of peace offered, by contrast, no way out except to obey. After living with Tibetans for some years, I had to admit that I never encountered a Tibetan who willingly assented when ordered to do something, that a request for
obedience was a truly threatening event for these people. I further began to realize that the Tibetans I had met would never back down from a fight, even if they were sure to lose
it. If they were sure to lose a fight they would bring in reinforcements but would never run off. Wrath and aggression were not matters to be afraid of in the Tibetan psychic vocabulary. As this realization dawned on me I began to see how easily a Tibetan
could be misunderstood.
Tibetans have painted enlightenment for as long as there have been paints and something to paint on. Robert A. F. Thurman, a life-long student of this, wrote a description in page 15 his Introduction to Worlds of Transformation, published in 1999 by Tibet House, New York. He said:
“Enlightenment art serves as a precious window into the new dimensions in the world revealed to the enlightened awareness. It is not merely religious or sacred art in the modern sense of revealing a segregated, personal reality, rationally unreal though emotionally idealized and spiritually beautiful. Enlightenment art, intriguingly like the nonfigural and surreal modern and contemporary art, aims to reveal what is more real than the mundane, routine reality, namely, the ultimate reality as fully understood in enlightenment and the relative reality as transformed by enlightened persons…. Due to the sense that even icons are by extension part of the actual emanation body of buddhahood, Tibetans feel that the icons they paint embody the living presence of enlightened beings.”
Nima never told me his paintings were anybody’s “living presence.” However, as I watched him paint, it seemed that the thought processes started in his painting would surely lead to enlightenment.