Breaking the Rules
A reflection on understanding tradition so we can leave it behind
I have always been drawn to incredibly detailed works of art. When I was a child I would spend a great deal of time examining the many books on art my parents had in their library, including several with the works of M.C. Escher. I was amazed at how intricate it was, how fine the lines, but I never thought it possible to create anything so meticulous myself.
This was in large part due to a lack of patience. When I got an idea for something, I felt an urgency to see the completed project. This is obvious when I look at the art I created throughout my teens and twenties. My pieces are either small and simple, easily completed in a week or, for larger scale paintings, they lack texture and depth. I would cut corners, simplify the art, and keep it as basic as possible. They are broad-stroked and hurriedly done — even though they often took a month to complete.
But then, in 2015, I began to teach myself how to draw symbols from traditional Thangka artwork. As a Buddhist who has mostly studied in Tibetan influenced spaces, I’d been exposed to these intensely colourful, symbolically rich pieces since very early in my practice. But I wasn’t always so drawn to them or interested in drawing them. I thought they were strange esoteric deities, depictions of goddesses and gods from a different culture, fixtures of woo in an otherwise logical path. But as I began to examine them closer — taking in the curve and bend of arms and legs, the twist of a rib cage, the curls and loops of adornments — I began to get curious and I felt a distinctive pull to create one for myself.
My wife bought me a book as a guide — pretty much the only book to be found on the subject — and I set about doing my first full Thangka figure. I also began to research and study, looking at the many different depictions of each, learning about what they represented, why they had the accoutrements they did, and what their purpose was. They are not appropriated deities from another culture, but reflections of our own wisdom, manifest in a vibrant figure, made dynamic through elaborate poses. Limbs spread wide, often more than one set of arms, holding ritual objects of all sorts, or contorted into symbolic mudras — the embodiments of virtues like compassion, wisdom, discernment, equanimity, devotion. They are tools of spiritual technology.
I have been particularly drawn to Thangkas of dakinis and other wrathful protectors like Mahakala — especially after reading Judith Simmer-Brown’s book, Dakini’s Warm Breath. The female form represents emptiness, wisdom illuminated, whilst compassion chooses a male form. Such a wonderful thing to reflect on. A brilliant example of gender as concept in how differently it’s understood by another culture.
I also love the Bodhisattvas, the ones who bear witness to the world’s suffering and postpone their own enlightenment so they may alleviate the suffering of all beings. My favourite of them all is Manjushri, drawn androgynously and given several different pronouns. They are often depicted seated, cross-legged, with a flaming sword held aloft as if about to be brought down. In their other hand they hold a book in front of their chest, a smile on their lips. They represent the power of not-knowing — being willing to let go of fixed ideas, expectations, and rigid beliefs.
With this new understanding, I found myself enjoying the process of creating as I never had before. There were moments of frustration, but it felt so similar to my practice of meditation. The grid one uses as the basis of a Thangka is much like one’s posture during meditation. It is stabilizing, grounding, foundational. As long as I followed the grid, I couldn’t get the figure wrong, and then the detail was up to me.
I have learned patience and appreciation as I spend time creating these pieces. I love the time it takes in a way I never did before. I am happy to go back and redraw the curve of a shoulder or the delicate placement of a flower, the gilding on a crown or the grotesque details of a necklace of skulls. I am happy to draw again those I have already done, to revisit their form and what they represent, and see how much more detail I might capture the next time around. I am not averse to that which is traditional, although I am always cautious about what is perpetuated in the name of tradition.
This past summer I was meant to attend a formal Thangka training course at the Nitartha Institute. I was excited to receive proper transmission of the teachings, especially as I feel I’ve reached the limits of what I can learn from my Thangka art reference book. I was longing for this course, even though the timing wasn’t great and finances were tight. When it was cancelled, just a few weeks prior, I felt relief tinged with disappointment.
I wanted to take that course so I could start on my next Thangka project, to take what is traditional and convey it in a way that speaks to a wider audience of humans, to the multiplicity in our oneness, to our difference. While Thangka figures are representations of qualities we all have and can all cultivate, they are overwhelmingly depicted in only the male form. Even my beloved Manjushri defaults to male more often than not, and it is my personal insistence to call them by a gender-neutral pronoun, because I want so much to see a kind of representation in Buddhism and dharma that I too often don’t.
I have been told, and have heard others be told, that it doesn’t matter if so many of these images are of men, because they are ‘beyond gender’ through their realisation. A fine statement to make if you don’t know what it’s like not to see yourself reflected in the world around you, to not see models and lived examples of folks who share your abilities, embodiments and presentation. And a statement that ignores the patriarchal influence on Buddhism around the world, and how that influence has kept and continues to keep women and non-binary folks from teaching, leading and guiding.
So, despite the cancellation of the course, I’m embarking on a new project with my Thangka line drawings. I am working on a new set of the Buddhas known as the Five Buddha Families — Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Amithaba, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairochana — but in non-male forms. It’s a departure from the traditional, but really, that’s what we need more than ever these days. The claim of tradition is used to hold onto so much that causes harm through exclusion and dehumanising practices and beliefs.
I’ll keep the grid though. I believe it’s important for us to understand the rules, not so we can abide by them unquestioningly, but so we can break them elegantly, purposefully and creatively. Same grid, just different embodiments.
Thank you for reading! You can see Series 1 of these pieces in the Gallery on my website, and follow the progress of my artwork on Instagram @ksc_hatch.
Leave me a tip, clap for this piece, and share it through social media to help support my writing, podcast and art. Patronage helps sustain my work in the world, so that’s super appreciated too, if it’s something you can offer.
Toodle on over to www.KaitlynSCHatch.com to find out more about what I do and see a Gallery of my art work. If you have questions about any of my work, you can get in touch with me through my website or Instagram.