by Jon Ciliberto
for Buddhist Art News
Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia has strong connections with Tibetan culture. HH The Dalai Lama is a Presidential Distinguished Professor, and the school has numerous programs bridging its Atlanta campus with Dharamsala, the location of the Tibetan government in exile, in Northwest India.
Each summer, a group of Emory students travel there to study, as a group of Tibetan monks exchanges spots with them and visit and study in Atlanta.
The Emory students each complete a project on a subject of their choosing. On Wednesday, I listened to a presentation by two recently returned undergraduates on Tibetan thangkas.
For me, this was primarily a view of the experience two young people, previously unfamiliar, learning about Buddhist art. It is rare in the United States for students, other than those with a specialized interest, to gain even the most cursory sense of what Buddhist art is. I am delighted to see this opportunity, and to observe some of its results.
Additionally, it provided me a some nostalgia for my own visit to Dharamsala and environs last summer.
The presentation hit the key points of thangka history, production, usage, and conservation. Frequently noted was the importance of compassionate intention in the artist while making a thangka.
They described the long history of thangka painting in Tibet — noting how far it outstrips in continuity any artistic tradition in the west — and how this contradicted the view that many Americans probably have of the region: that it is primitive and backward.
Much of their research occurred at the Norbulingka Institute, a site devoted to the applied arts of Tibetan culture. Students in Emory’s exchange program have unparalleled access to Tibetan craftsmen, scholars, and governmental officials.
The survival of Tibetan culture — a culture without a country — depends upon the smart young people of the present realizing that it is valuable, and nothing better cultivates this realization than direct experience with it.
The two young women intelligently fielded questions, both on thangkas and on the experience of living in Dharamsala. Many of the other students present were curious about the exchange program. While I felt tempted to pipe up about how wonderful, beautiful, and enriching it is to spend time in this Buddhist part of India, and to interact with Tibetan culture there, the presenters were so exceptionally warm and thoughtful in their descriptions of the experience, there was no need for me to add a word.