Darlings, how are you? As we head deep into Fall here in the northern hemisphere I escaped the city for a retreat at the Omega Institute in the glorious Hudson Valley. I was able to reconnect with a spiritual and artistic practice that I had laid aside for three years. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. The last three years have been complicated for everyone, so why not just leave it at that and move on? So glad you agree, darling!
Image: Long Pond Lake on the Omega campus in Rhinebeck, NY
Before getting into that, I want to extend a warm welcome to those joining us via Aubrey Sitterson’s shout-out in his newsletter. Also, to those who found their way here from Eli Trier’s Uncommon Email course, an equally heartfelt welcome. I hope you’ll all start clicking some links and explore the work of these two wonderful people! And yes, darling, newsletters are the new black.
“Spiritual and artistic practice” I hear you ask? Indeed. In Tibet and other areas influenced by Tibetan culture, there is a long tradition of painting enlightened beings (aka Buddhas). These paintings have many overlapping roles: they can be instructional, a devotional offering, or guides for Tibetan Buddhism’s many visualization meditations. They are anything but decoration. I could go on, but instead I’ll refer you to the amazing book Images of Enlightenment by Jonathan Landaw and Andy Weber.
Amidst all my other art making, I have over the years made time for some exploration of this tradition under the guidance of the amazing Carmen Mensink. After a three year hiatus, she was finally able to return the United States and give teachings in the New York area.
Image: White Tara, female buddha of long-life
Returning to something after a time away is an interesting blend of old and new, familiar and surprising. I’m glad to say I came back to the work with a calmer mind and steadier hand. That’s the familiar. On the surprising side, I came back to the work with a new awareness leading me to ponder the idea of linage.
Image: in-progress drawing of Green Tara, the embodiment of enlightened activity and active compassion.
First, a quick note about the lineage here. I study with Carmen, who studied with Andy Weber (one of the creators of the book mentioned above) who studied with Thargey in Nepal who studied with his father, who studied with his father, and so on, going back generations in Tibet. While it gets a bit patriarchal as you go back in time, I hope we can focus on the opening up of the lineage in more recent generations. I feel Carmen balances the old and new skillfully, ensuring the tradition is alive and well while holding, and instilling in her students, a deep respect for these precious teachings.
And there’s our magic word for the day: “respect.” It’s through the lens of respect that I continue to ponder the issue of appropriation. I have no ethnic or cultural claim to these traditions so I try to approach them with the utmost respect. It’s not pixie dust that will immediately rid all my actions of colonizer taint, but is a useful test to examine my actions against. I make no claims to expertise, don’t teach, share, publish or otherwise disseminate the techniques and traditions, and I don’t sell the work I create. (Footnote: I have from time to time offered prints for sale and add the proceeds to my regular donations to Tergar, a Tibetan Buddhist organization. I may continue to do so occasionally in the future.) A humility born from respect is my way a guarding against appropriation. There are no clear-cut boundaries so it will be a continual practice of awareness and honest introspection.
Hewing closely to the tradition and lineage also offers me a rare experience of feeling held. I’m not alone, not some individual casting about for answers or ideas—or even recognition. Fun fact: you don’t sign these paintings. Rather I’m a voice in a beautiful ensemble carrying on a centuries-old tradition. Ironically, it’s quite liberating and joyful. I enjoy great delight in finding small bits of personal expression amidst the rigor of the teachings. I’m adding to something rather than starting from scratch; I’m laying one tiny brick on a fabulous temple that extends into the clouds; I’m putting one delicate offering on a beautiful altar that spans the cosmos.
Image: Green Tara, drawing complete and the beginnings of color.
Best of all, darlings, you can, too! Carmen offers online courses in addition to live workshops and retreats. No experience or training necessary. Carmen, a fabulous teacher in her own right, backed up by the luminary power of lineage can unlock artistic potential you never knew you had.
Until next time, flame on! 🔥
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