Interview with Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche about the Project

Magazine issue: 
Special issue. THE ART OF BUDDHISM


Q: My first question is about the number - 108. How should we interpret it? Can we view it as a lineage of 54 masters and 54 disciples, or as a chain with some links and/or a certain hierarchy? And why has this particular number - 108 - been chosen?

The 108 Dzogchen Lineage Thangkas Project is a Buddhist project dedicated to preserving our important lineage and teachings - Dzogchen - also known as "the Great Perfection". When we speak of Dzogchen masters lineage, it has an inconceivably long history and includes many masters, so for now, we have chosen the ones of greatest importance and renown.

Still, you ask why this particular number? The number 108 is sacred; even the amount of beads in a full mala (Buddhist rosary) is 108. It seems a very appropriate number: it includes neither too many, nor too few masters, but exactly as many as needed.

As for any special link between the number and the master-disciple lineage, there is none. Let me explain my point: we cannot say that 54 masters had exactly 54 disciples. Of course, for most of the depicted masters, the master-disciple lineage did exist but the chain is not always linear. Some thangkas commissioned under the 108 Project will show one master with many disciples.

Q: What does lineage mean? Has it ever been broken, or is it a continuous tradition?

Our lineage has never been broken. It is a tradition that continues from the thangka of the first Buddha Samantabhadra down to Vajrasattva, Garab Dorje, and the present-day masters, such as Dodrubchen Rinpoche, Chatral Sungye Dorje and so on.

The following extract is added from an earlier interview given by Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche in India in spring 2014. Lineage in Buddhism is a line of transmission of the Buddhist teachings tracing back to the Buddha
himself. The teachings are passed down from teacher to disciple in an unbroken chain, like a power line running from a power source.

In Tibetan Buddhism lineage is extremely important. Without an authentic lineage we cannot give transmissions and empowerments, or explain the tantras. Once a lineage is broken that is the end of those teachings. Authentic lineage also serves to provide inspiration, context, and blessings to students and practitioners.

All of the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni have a lineage - the vinaya, the sutras, the abhidharma teachings, as well as the secret mantra vehicle. Or more simply stated, for the full monk's ordination there must be a lineage, for the bodhisattva vows there must be a lineage, and for the mantrayana there must also be a lineage.

Likewise, Dzogchen teachings have a lineage, and that lineage of Dzogchen masters is like a golden chain descending from master to disciple. Initially, Dzogpachenpo instructions - the realization of the dharmakaya Samantabhadra - were transmitted to Garab Dorje (the first human master) and then gradually to Manjushrimitra and so forth, in an immaculate and unmistaken way. Therefore, we must endeavour to preserve this authentic lineage of Dzogchen masters for the Dzogchen teachings to survive.

Q: The approach to the image in a Buddhist thangka is very interesting. What does it mean?

Today we have a body of literature describing the lives of Dzogchen masters, as well as the history of the Dzogchen lineage and teaching. All these texts are available in Tibetan, and there are also books in English, French, Chinese, and in other languages. Yet, these are written sources. It is important to visualize the masters' images to fully understand their lives and the history of the lineage's teaching.

But let's get back to the project's objective. Originally, two artistic traditions were practiced in Tibet: one was the making of statues and the other was the painting of thangkas. Once, in Tibet, there were temples that could house 108 statues of masters. But all of them were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and today it is very difficult to build a temple spacious enough to accommodate 108 statues. It is much easier to paint thangkas, duplicate them in high quality, and supply all existing monasteries with these reproductions.

In the past, the statues were made of gold, silver and clay. Only the great master was represented, without the scenes of his life or of his disciples' lives. A thangka, however, makes it possible to tell the full story of their lives. For example, some masters depicted on these thangkas resided in monasteries, some lived in caves, and others lived in the mountains or in the woods. Even if we wanted to make the masters' statues, we would not be able to reproduce the environments in which they dwelled. Yet, we can easily depict all of this in a thangka.

It is important to recognize that today the Dzogchen lineage's teaching has spread and gained popularity throughout the world. Some masters wrote up to 50 or 60 volumes - one of these was Lonchen Rabjam. Many of them have had thousands of disciples. In any case, this teaching's lineage is renowned throughout Tibet. Before the age of photography, in the West portraits were painted of all prominent individuals. For example, the image of Jesus was depicted in icons. Yet, until now we did not have the images of all Dzogchen masters, though some images are available. Perhaps such images did exist before, but today many do not exist. During the Cultural Revolution period, hundreds of thousands of thangkas were burnt; at present we don't have even their reproductions. And if we don't paint these thangkas now, we'll never be able to do so in the future.

Q: And how is it possible to restore the images that have been lost? Do any canons for thangka painting exist? After all, both an Orthodox icon and a Buddhist thangka are beyond the concept of time, being some kind of revelation transferred through images and a visual language of lines and paint.

The masters' biographies can help in reconstruction of the images. Also, texts are available that explain the canons of thangka painting. For example, having read the history of master Kumaradza's life, we understand that he should be depicted as thin - as a practicing ascetic - and dressed in the habit of a monk who has taken the full vows. Let's take another example: Mahasiddha Melong Dorje. From what is known about his life, he should be painted as a man in practice, dressed in the special clothes of the one who has reached high realization, with a vajra (a ceremonial baculus, or staff symbolic of authority) and a melong (a round metal mirror). Sandag Drugpopa should be depicted with a long beard. The available texts provide all this information.

Q: Is it necessary to interact with the image? Does a person need an image to support his or her faith? For example, according to Evangelical Christians and Baptists, the veneration of icons as a form of service to God does not have Biblical roots. According to their beliefs, if a person dedicates himself or herself to God, then an icon - as a means of establishing communication with God and a "window onto the spiritual world” - becomes redundant. The believer's heart serves him or her as such a window: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” (Matthew. 5:8).

Buddhism speaks of dharmakaya - the highest absolute that manifests itself in the material world through the emanation of masters; and nirmanakaya - to bring blessing and teachings to living creatures. That is why the manifested image is important; with such images, the blessing will increase. So, we need the image to support our faith. It's possible to believe without it, but the image makes it easier, as it helps us to visualize anything that has an image.

Besides, the Dzogchen Thangkas Project is not just about religion; it's a cultural project as well. Having painted 108 Dzogchen masters, we will help preserve a shared human history. At present, we have portraits of all the influential people who ever lived in the world, whether famous or infamous.

The Dzogchen teaching is already popular worldwide, but it will gain even more popularity in the future. That
is why we have to paint these "portraits" of Dzogchen masters. In the future, when somebody reads about a certain master and wants to know what that master looked like, they will be able to find his image immediately. If we paint images of 108 masters, we will be able to photocopy them, and to publish a book or post the images on the Internet - it does not take much time today. Earlier, the images of great masters existed in Tibet. Most likely, they were kept in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and in large monasteries. But it was very easy to destroy them - it took only a fraction of time. How much time would it take to burn these 108 thangkas? Only a few minutes! But once the project is fully implemented, and high quality copies of 108 thangkas are sent to all the monasteries, published in books, and posted on the Internet, it will be impossible to destroy them by fire. They will be available worldwide. Today, a few Dzogchen thangkas are kept in various museums around the world. In Germany, for example, there are five or six such thangkas. All of them arrived from Tibet. However, the fact that they are kept in a museum means that the monasteries do not have access to them.

Q: We hope that publication in the Russian-English "Tretyakov Gallery” magazine will serve just this very purpose: to attract the public's attention to these Buddhist thangkas, which are both sacred items and works of art. Of course, I mean the originals.

Yes, that would be wonderful. It is very important. For people unfamiliar with the concept of Buddha dharma (Buddhist teachings), the newly created thangkas depicting the lineage of Dzogchen masters will be works of art. In the future, many people will consider them examples of fine art.

Q: In Russia, we have a similar attitude to icons - to us, they provide us with spiritual "landmarks”, and we also admire them as works of art.

Yes, precisely. Just as today artworks unveil ancient civilizations, future generations will value these thangkas as the primary source for the history of our ancient culture and its tradition.

Speaking of Dzogchen tradition, it originated in India and then spread to Tibet. It happened over 2,000 years ago, yet today the tradition is known worldwide. This is why it is so important to paint these 108 thangkas with the images of Dzogchen lineage masters under this project. At the moment, we can learn about the history of Dzogchen lineage only with the help of the written sources that remain. But it would be great if we could visually interact with the masters through thangkas.

Today, we can find anything we want on the Internet - with only one exception: there are no [comprehensive] images of Dzogchen masters. So, the purpose of our project is to fill in this gap, and we hope that this mission will be successfully accomplished.

Q: Many people ask what you will do once the 108 thangkas have been painted.

As soon as the thangkas are painted we want to make them available to all people around the world, so that everybody can see them and learn about them. When anybody can find the thangkas on the Internet, it is not important what will happen to the original thangkas, because to us the most important goal is to let people see them. We'll be able to make up to 100 high-quality reproductions of each of the thangkas and send them to the Nyingma tradition monasteries. If other monasteries are interested in receiving the reproductions, we will supply them as well. Moreover, if representatives of other religious traditions wish to have the thangkas, we will gladly provide them with copies.

Q: Thank you very much for agreeing to give an interview to the magazine. I would like to present you as a gift the issue of the "Tretyakov Gallery” magazine that featured an article on Pavel Korin. This famous Soviet artist was the creator of portraits of Russian priests - witnesses to the desecration of faith. The article tells about the priests' tragic destinies: they all perished in Stalin's concentration camps.





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