I was extremely pleased when Keith Dowman suggested that I try my hand at illustrating his book Masters of Mahamudra: Songs and Histories of the Eighty-Four Buddhist Siddhas (SUNY Press, 1985). The project had a special appeal. I held my breath as Keith unrolled a tattered bundle of rather scratchy, photocopied images of the Siddhas taken from a xylographic manuscript printed in Dege, Tibet. Despite the generational distance that separated the photocopies from the original block prints an unmistakable artistic vision shone through. The illuminations by this anonymous master were exciting to behold. Having studied and worked in both the Tibetan and Chinese methods of Buddhist art I attempted to recreate the general spirit of eastern Tibetan drawingsa unique syncretist style that is one of the few happy marriages between those two noble cultures.
I approached the task as any ordinary Buddhist artist might: I strictly adhered to the iconographic model as received from Keith, the scholar, and consulted with him when the images seemed unclear. Once I had firmly, subjectively, visualized the icon, I was free to create a pure-land landscape in which the figure could take up residence in the world.
The landscapes follow traditional Chinese shan-sui "short-hand" with an emphasis on calligraphic brevity. In addition to reducing printing costs, this spare technique urges viewers into deeper realms of suggestion and imagination. Historically, many Chinese connoisseurs and artists regarded landscape art as images of profound religious experiencewhether or not religiously-inspired anthropomorphic icons were included. Similarly,
Buddhist connoisseurs and artists regarded such "empty" landscapes as Buddhist experiences. Masters of Mahamudra provided an opportunity to place an iconographic image of the divine in a landscape image of the divinea union that engrosses much of my own mental imagery. Dege (the capital of the old eastern Tibetan Kingdom of Kham where our models were printed) was itself a confluence of these two styles and produced a wealth of such syncretism.
Ultimately, the illustrations here should be grasped as artistic utensils that lack an important ingredient required to complete them: the internal realization of the particular teaching of each Siddha, something that must be supplied by the viewer. Viewers can begin their journey toward obtaining this missing ingredient, and thereby elevate the pictorial representations to direct experience, by reading the various stories of the Siddhas in Keith Dowmans book, Masters of Mahamudra. Keiths translations, commentaries, extensive bibliography, and useful notes and indices open the door to one of Tibets most sublime literary traditions.
Nyingma Icons -- The Line Drawings of Gomchen Au Leshe, the Tibetan teacher of H.R.Downs.
May all beings be happy!