Basically, my work has a lot to do with trying to understand non-duality. There’s no such thing as sacred. There’s no such thing as mundane. If we are aware enough or awakened enough, then we may understand like there’s a non-duality right there.
Welcome to AWAKEN, a podcast presented by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. That was the voice of Tsherin Sherpa and I am your host, Laurie Anderson. In this 10-part series, we explore the dynamic path to enlightenment and what it means to wake up. We’ll hear from authors, artists, wisdom bearers, and Buddhist teachers, people who have experienced a shift in their perspectives on life throughout their personal journey. This podcast is inspired by the exhibition Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, which illustrates the stages of enlightenment through paintings, sculptures, and other objects. We use these artworks as a jumping off point to better understand the paths our guests have been on and where they are going. In this episode, we consider the sacred and mundane and how to bridge them in our lives. We hear from artist Tsherin Sherpa, as he shares his story of how he found his creativity and his voice. He is joining us from Kathmandu and brings with him the lush sounds of the valley.
Right now, I’m in Nepal, in Kathmandu. And I just came here in December from the States. I have a studio set up here in Kathmandu. It’s a bird or something outside going on and on.
In his work, Tsherin Sherpa builds upon his background as a trained traditional thangka painter. Thangkas are Tibetan scroll paintings that usually depict a Buddhist deity and here Tsherin shows how his artwork Protector came to be.
I grew up in a family of thangka painters and my father was my teacher. So since the age of like three to four, I still remember seeing all of these images and becoming so used to these images. And perhaps I was looking for something that jolts me, that surprises me, that excites me. And maybe I wanted to play with these images because of that and to come out of my desensitized experiences, because having seen these over and over again, sometimes you become so used to it and you become desensitized. Since I was trained as a traditional artist, when I was experimenting with my contemporary works, I wanted to work with some of the existing images from the traditional iconography.
And this is one of the works from the Protector series. I would take an image of a traditional Buddhist protector iconography and manipulate it to the point where it changes its conventional form. What I have done here is I have taken the traditional image and swirled it to actually make it look like it’s, you know, a whirlpool, almost. The image actually is somehow lost within this movement. Basically when you look at it, you see a swirl. It almost appears as some form of design, but when you look closer, then you begin to decipher all of the abstracted versions of the traditional imagery. I have used goldleaf here for the background. And apart from that, all the colors that you see in the painting are exactly like you would see in a thangka of this deity. And in this particular work, it was also done in two different panels so that it’s fragmented. The idea is for me to see how far I can abstract the image so that maybe it’s the search for the essence of the image rather than the conventional image that I’m so used to.
Growing up, I read Buddhist philosophy, and at times it would feel very alienated because it’s so far away. For me to relate to that was very difficult. When I read the descriptions of enlightenment or, you know, awakening experiences in poetic, very traditional language, it’s way beyond my cup of coffee and a glass of water and my lunch. What is the bridge between these experiences of, let’s say, awakening experiences and this ordinary, mundane life. How do I translate that? So trying to bring that sacredness into my day-to-day experiences.
I was born here in Nepal, into a Buddhist family, and my father was a thangka painter and both my parents were devout Buddhists. I think the Buddhist culture was very much evident in my day-to-day life while growing up. Also because having lived right around one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Boudhanath, in Kathmandu, I was so familiar with Buddhist iconography, the rituals, monasteries, monks, prayer flags. So these were like everyday objects that I would experience in my day-to-day life. Morning was for rituals. I had to wake up around five o’clock in the morning. My mother would wake me up around five o’clock in the morning, every morning. And she would go for circumambulation of the Boudhanath Stupa. And sometimes I did go with her to the stupa for a circumambulation. But sometimes, most of the time, I was actually, I had to do recitation of lots of prayers that I was supposed to memorize. So I would be in the altar room, memorizing and reciting all of these prayers while my father would be in his room, like doing prayers and rituals, et cetera. And then after that too, we would have breakfast and then my classes began. I think I was taught more about karmic consequences. Like if you are good to others, then good things will happen to you. Definitely about compassion and karmic consequences a lot. But enlightenment, yeah, it’s too far away. We never talked about it.
I used to share this story with my friends in the States. For me, when I was growing up, our idea of picnic was, all these families would get together and get into this big bus and then we would go to another Buddhist site. We would just drive up there and all the kids would come out of the bus and then parents would be preparing food, this and that, and then some of them would be like, starting to do all these prayer rituals, hanging prayer flags. So it was basically some form of Buddhist ritual, and then finally we would just get to eat something, after all that ritual was done. So for me, it was a very new experience like, in America, a picnic is like, you carry wine and eatable things in the basket and you sit by the beach and watch the sunset or something. So this was the kind of environment I grew up in.
My father grew up partly in Tibet. And then my mother is from the Everest region of Nepal. It’s a Himalayan cultures, Buddhist background. And I think the Sherpa people and Tibetan people, they’re very much””how would I put it?””culturally they’re exactly the same, the language. I grew up speaking like Sherpa language, Tibetan language, and then I was sent to a Nepali school. So I also got to learn Nepali simultaneously. I remember like going to a Nepali school and then there I felt a little bit different. I found there were very few people that were from the Buddhist families, I would say. Then you began to feel a little bit different. I feel I have this very in-built talent to assimilate into different environments. In terms of identification. I think I feel both Tibetan, Nepali, and now even American. So it’s kind of””I feel all of them simultaneously.
My grandparents were nomads in the southern part of Tibet in Nyalam. My father, I think he was five or six year old when he actually came to the Nepalese side, along with my grandmother. And then at that time there was no border restrictions or anything like that, I guess. So we had families on both sides of the border from my father’s side. So yeah, they crossed the border, and then eventually he went back into Tibet and then studied thangka painting again. So I think they had homes on both sides of the borders. My father, he lost his father, and then some of the properties that he had in the southern part of Tibet, he sold. And then he just wanted to be a wanderer and to find some teachers who would teach him traditional thangka painting. My grand uncles, my father’s maternal uncles, were all respected thangka painters in southern Tibet in their region. My grand uncles were trained in Shigatse or Gyantse or something like that, which is the central part of Tibet. And they were painting monastery murals in the southern part of Tibet, and they were also highly respected within the society at that time. Traditional artists were, because they were an integral part of a Buddhist culture, rituals, and ceremonies. So thangka painters had a status within the society. So I guess probably my father was attracted to painting because he was very creative also, since when he was young, but his parents wanted him to take up his family tradition as a nomad, but he was very, very insistent on learning thangka painting.
Very early on, he was always drawn to Buddhist art, thangka painting. He used to tell me he would just be inside the monastery, looking at the murals, spend hours and hours there, enjoying artworks in the monastery, probably. While all the cattles are like, you know, grazing outside, and sometimes he would lose some of the cattles and he would have to like, go look for them again to bring them back. And sometimes it would be late arriving home with the cattles, and he used to get scolded by the grandparents, something like that. And also another thing my father told me was, which was really fascinating for me, because I think up in that altitude, there is a particular type of a tree that has leaves. The front of the leaf is green, but the back of the leaf is kind of like powdered white substance or something. So because he didn’t have any papers to work on, he would collect lots and lots of these leaves in his pockets. And he would use a stick to just draw images on the back of the leaf where this powdered white texture, where you could easily draw images with a wood or stick. Growing up, in my case, I was never, in the beginning, interested to study thangka painting. And my father used to buy like, these posters of lots of different flowers and birds, animals, and I would just try to copy them in my drawing book. Or even at that time when I was growing up, a comic was quite popular. I was actually very attracted to comic drawings and illustrations. I used to draw Tintin, and I think I remember Superman for sure. Then again also Asterix comics, and also there were lots of comics being published from India at that time. So lots of these Indian comics, superheroes and mythological comics. So I guess because I was familiar with thangka images, thangka iconography, somehow I could relate because it’s very painted in a flat style, which I was attracted to, I guess. I think because my father saw some talent in me for drawing, he felt that maybe he should teach traditional thangka painting to me. So that’s how I start learning thangka painting.
As I was beginning to learn thangka painting, I also simultaneously was going to a nearby monastery to study Buddhist script, learning the alphabets and the calligraphy and like, prayers. I think I was 13. I thought it was cool to be a monk because I saw them like playing all the time. So I thought maybe I, you know, I get to play a lot and just have lots of fun. Oh, they were playing soccer and riding bicycles and then going to their classes. Oh, my parents were totally against it. My parents didn’t want me to become a monk, because they felt that it was just a phase in my life where I was more attracted to free time, playing, friends, and lots of monk friends and then it looked very fun to me from my perspective. I think I’m happy I’m not a monk. I’m very happy to be with samsara. My samsara is just this everyday mundane thing around us. Samsara is the place where one dwells before becoming enlightened. I’m very much in love with samsara. In the sense, I think I don’t have that capacity or dedication to become a monk. So I think I’m just happy that I’m a lay practitioner. Maybe I’m not even a practitioner. Lay person who sometimes thinks of awakening, if possible. The idea of enlightenment is too far away for me.
Learning thangka painting was not my choice. My father felt that it was necessary for me to learn and pass down this knowledge to me from him. So the first thing I was taught was how to grind colors, paints, because my father uses like mineral pigments, which are extracted off of like, you know, just rocks and stones, and so I was taught how to grind the pigment. And then I was taught how to mix the pigment with glue, water. And then I was taught to draw just the head of the Buddha. I had to like, draw it over and over, all day long. So I did that for almost three months until the whole drawing process became kind of like second nature to me. And then I was given another like example of””at first it was just the head and then the whole body without any clothings. And then you would learn how to do the clothings. And simultaneously at times I would also be given the opportunity to apply colors, paints. Simultaneously, I would be learning sketching the drawings, and then I would be taught mixing colors, color application, we call it. And then eventually I was taught how to blend colors. Then comes outlining, which is doing the details with fine brushes. And then you’re taught how to do the finishing, which is like actually the details of the feature, and painting eyes of a deity is considered like very, very fine work. And these were taught at the very end. Took about approximately five years altogether. So simultaneously I was also, in terms of like, paint application and doing all of this brush details, I would be actually helping my father with his commission works for monasteries or, you know, thangkas. And so that’s why it was even more stressful, because these were commissioned pieces that it had to be right, you know. So yes, you would make mistakes, sometimes then you would have to like, repaint it, cover it and then do these things. But your practices were mostly on commission works. I would actually even accompany my father to the southern part of Tibet where my father came from. I think it was in 1986 or something like that, we were there for six months painting the monastery mural of a monastery that was near from the village where my father came from. So we did the whole renovation of the monastery mural in that much. So that was my first experience of being in a place where my father came from. And that was the first time I interacted with many of my cousins and nieces and like aunts from that region, that Tibet side.
So in Kathmandu, there was this mass production of religious artworks that was happening. Every year, year by year, the quality of the work was degrading. There were souvenir shops being opened everywhere. Sometimes even artworks being created in assembly line, just to attract tourists. So basically these religious paintings or traditional thangkas were becoming more of a souvenir as opposed to a sacred object or even valuable art. And even the society was beginning to see more as any other regular craftsmanship. I felt like this was not a tradition that was respected. I used to hear stories of these masters who were very highly respected within the society, back in Tibet when my father would be talking about his uncles or other masters, and this was something that was not happening back then in Nepal. So then I felt maybe there’s something beyond it.
My first awakening happened when I first arrived in the U.S. Some of my friends actually invited me to go to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. So I went to this museum, we had to pay a certain amount of money to buy the ticket. Then you go inside and then finally you see this beautiful glass case. All of these thangkas were hanging with all these lightings. I could feel that these were very, very like highly respected objects as opposed to something that I saw in souvenir shops many times in Nepal. That’s when I felt like, I guess, I felt very, very good. My heart was not a hundred percent into it until I came to America and saw how valuable this tradition is. How people actually appreciate it. Then I was awakened, I guess, to some extent, to understand that this is a valuable tradition.
Eventually I was introduced to the Asian Art Museum and they were doing some kind of a program called Asia Alive where an artist would take residency at the museum for a month and would demonstrate thangka painting and the visitors would interact with me. It was during the exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, during the demonstration program, I was having my lunch, some sandwich and chips and Coke, and a lady came to me and she literally felt very sorry for me saying that I feel really, really sad, and I’m really sorry that we corrupted you. And I was like, what? And she’s like, Now you’re drinking Coca-Cola, Coke. And then I was like, No, but I grew up drinking Coke, even before I came to America. So there are two types of projections. In Nepal, if you’re a thangka painter, you’re outdated, you’re very old fashioned. In the West, you’re a holy person or sacred and probably you’re already partly enlightened. So these were two different projections that I was experiencing. That experience gave me the opportunity to express that I am as ordinary and as worldly and as, you know, influenced by pop culture as anybody else. And I wanted to just make some works that talk about who I am as a person, you know. That was where I found my voice.
As Tsherin began to understand who he was as an artist, he found inspiration in artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. He found parallels in Duchamp’s famous work Fountain, which subverted the expectations of what art could be, and Warhol’s portraits of pop culture icons with that of traditional Buddhist thangka painting.
When I was studying art history, actually when I was being taught in a crash course by some of my friends, I couldn’t relate to some of these older traditions and stuff like that. Renaissance. And, of course, it was important for me to understand. But I couldn’t relate to it very strongly, but when they actually started teaching me about Duchamp, somehow it felt like I actually could relate to it very strongly. Because it felt like I understood Duchamp’s work through my Buddhist understanding based on its function. It keeps on changing its functionality, and that’s how we perceive things. Duchamp’s urinal in a gallery context is an artwork, whereas if it is in the bathroom, I could see a urinal and with it its function. So similarly, a bottle of water could be a bottle of water, yet at the same time, as soon as I pour it inside my offering bowls to these””on the altar””to these deities, it transforms into sacred object, holy water or sacred water. So it’s not ordinary water anymore. Not even water, it’s an offering. It’s something very precious or something very sacred. So I could relate to that. Warhol was another very important artist for me because he was again playing with lots of icons, these celebrities. So I could relate to that because deities are icons in our cultural context. And eventually I started working with images of spirits.
So the spirits are strongly influenced by the stories that my grandmother was telling me when I was growing up. Spirit of the mountain, spirit of the water, spirit of valley. It’s a new character. I was also imagining like, what happens to these spirits? If people from this particular place had all moved on to different places, would the spirit follow them. Because to me, again, spirit also means a collective mental phenomenon. If the people moved from their local area, then maybe their spirits also travel. And if they did, how would they function in this new environment? So these were something very interesting for me. You know, I wanted to talk about the spirit, traveling in this new world where he or she understands everything about like, you know, Coca-Cola, everything. This spirit is in some ways, it’s my alter ego maybe. Basically my work has a lot to do with trying to understand non-duality. There’s no such thing as sacred. There’s no such thing as mundane. I guess if we are aware enough or awakened enough, then we may understand there’s a non-duality right there.
I would say art can tap into many things like subtle emotions, experiences, expression. Art allows us to see things in many different ways, which we conventionally or normally don’t see. Process of art making could also be a metaphor for awakening because you’re sometimes experimenting, exploring, and I think art actually reflects so much of life in a small way. You’re exploring. That’s why probably most of the artists use the word exploring as opposed to making, which I like it very much because it’s, you sometimes explore and not knowing like where you will end up. And that in itself is a reflection of life. Okay. Yes, suddenly there is awakening when that process becomes successful.
For me, art making is not just about creating an object or creating a painting. But I think the art making has, I, like to believe that it has gone beyond that. We’re trying to establish a small school here to train young artists in traditional art. And this time around, hopefully we can provide a proper education on traditional art, the proper knowledge on traditional art to these young children that we will be trying to educate. And also creating some form of awareness abroad about the authentic practices of thangka painting and how it should be viewed and also maybe creating connections between institutions and living masters. So that somehow trying to separate between what is the souvenir art and what is a real authentic thangka painting and by doing that, hopefully preserving the valuable aspects of thangka painting. Hoping and believing that this will continue and the authentic version of, and also reviving the traditional thangka painting and making it aware to the community itself that it’s our own heritage, our own culture. It’s empowering the society.
Before we come to a close, Tsherin shares one way we can experience the sacred in the mundane through a practice of awareness.
This life that we have is very precious. Sometimes we tend to think of life as ongoing. But there may be disruptions immediately, sometimes unexpected. So appreciating the moment we have and also valuing it and being aware of it. The moment of awakening or enlightenment is not one big awakening only. I think it’s moment to moment. It could be as mundane as just tasting the food. Normally we’re not so aware and in the moment sometimes when you actually taste it with awareness, it tastes different. Taste the texture, the taste, the smell, the touch, everything using your five senses to understand food, sometimes helps enjoying the food much better. It gives you the feeling that you are alive.
Special thanks to Tsherin Sherpa for sharing his experience with us. We really hope you enjoyed it. For more information about our guests and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit RubinMuseum.org/awakenpod. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @RubinMuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Wieden Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. AWAKEN is sponsored by Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for AWAKEN was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite and Siddhartha Corthus.
Don’t miss out on the next episode as best-selling author, activist, and Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens explores the question what is the ego? And what role does it play in the process of awakening?
Thanks for listening.