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Facing your demons

John Reeve explains how Tibetan Buddhists use their startling art for spiritual enlightenment

In this 19th-century painting we are in a disturbing, windswept and dark world where all is agitation below and serenity above. This is the distinctive art of Tibet, a thangka, a "thing that one unrolls" and then rolls up again after viewing. Because they are not on permanent display, colours are often preserved on thangkas from centuries ago.

To make a thangka, the tightly stretched cotton canvas is mounted on silk.

First, it is prepared with a paste of chalk, clay and water and then polished when dry with a stone or shell. A grid of lines is then drawn using a chalked string: there is a set system for composition, and charcoal is sifted through holes in standard designs for the key figures. The colours - almost all derived from minerals, such as malachite for green, cinnebar for yellow - Jare applied with a great range of animal-hair brushes, with fine tips for gold. When finished, the thangka is blessed by the reciting of holy mantras and then housed in a sacred setting.

Tibet is the world's highest country, an often inhospitable and mountainous region that is a quarter the size of the United States, but with a tiny population. From its glacial streams flow the headwaters of many of Asia's great rivers. Not surprisingly Tibetans have often seen themselves as a people apart, between India and China at the heart of Asia, and have seen Tibet as the home of the gods: "This centre of heaven, this core of earth, this heart of the world, fenced round by snowy mountains, where peaks are high and the land is pure," declares a 9th-century poem.

Tibet was seen by early Buddhists as the giant body of a demoness that had to be subdued. In this environment they turned to fierce protector gods to look after them, and this painting shows Mahakala, one of the most ferocious of them all. Mahakala began as a version of the Hindu god Shiva and became a key image for Tantric Buddhism. This form of Buddhism teaches the possibility of achieving enlightenment rapidly in just one lifetime through meditation and severe self-discipline. Tantric art particularly depicts the turbulent world that may be going on within us: those inner demons are shown as physical demons outside ourselves, to be overcome.

For four centuries, until the Chinese takeover in 1959, Tibet had a unique system of government in which the Dalai Lama (his Mongolian title translates as "great ocean of wisdom") headed the Buddhist religion and the state. Now in exile in India, he continues to have a worldwide influence as a spiritual leader of Tibetans. He once observed that "material comfort may make some people forget spiritual valuesI all hope for the future depends upon maintaining a reasonable balance between material and spiritual concerns".

This painting is a vivid depiction of that struggle. The central figure is "The Great Black One" (Mahakala), once a demon and now tamed by the Buddhist deity of compassion to become a demon-slayer himself. These demons are the addictions, delusions and temptations that prevent us from reaching true enlightenment. Mahakala is equipped with three eyes and four arms; he catches demons with snare and lasso, then despatches them with chopper and skull-topped trident. Demon heads dangle from his tigerskin skirt; their blood and guts swirl in the bowl made from a skull that he daintily grasps in front of him. He wears a diadem of skulls as well as more conventional jewellery. The skin of a recently slain elephant is wrapped round him and you can see its head to the left of Mahakala. His bulging belly signifies prosperity, and the figure on which he tramples shows his power. This dance of death is back-lit by flames and accompanied by long-haired beaked protectors at the bottom, with one, a female, on an ass. The dice that are rolled to settle our fate dangle from her saddlebag. She particularly protects the Dalai Lama, and Lhasa, capital of Tibet. As well as being protector of tents (and thus popular in Mongolia also), Mahakala is also protector of science.

Peering down with interest from their heavenly perches, five Tantric sages symbolise the teachings needed to achieve enlightenment and freedom from distraction and attachment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism. At the centre is the elderly mystic Saraha, maker of arrows (symbolising his swift understanding), and author of words such as these, which could describe aspects of this painting:

"Where vital breath and mind no longer roam about, Where sun and moon do not appear, There, O Man, put your thought to rest I Do not discriminate, but see all things as one, Make no distinctions of clans or castes, Let the whole of the universe be as one."

Whereas modern, western artists seek above all to be original, this has never been the aim of Buddhist artists. They have been trained by working under and copying from their masters, who may be monks or family members.

We know little about the artists of works such as this, usually unsigned and often undated. Creating a work of art is thought to bring merit not only to the patron who commissioned it but also to the painter, usually a monk.

= Living Buddhism by Andrew Powell and Graham Harrison (British Museum Press) has superb photos and a chapter on Tibetans in exile.

Tibet: Life, Myth and Art by Michael Willis (Duncan Baird) is profusely illustrated with many British Museum images, and is useful for both art and religious studies.

John Reeve is a freelance education consultant Websites features the thangka painting school at Dharamsala, the main Tibetan refugee centre in India is a useful visual index to paintings in world collections, with a special children's section is a very useful collection of historic photos from Tibet in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

* An exhibition of historic photos from Tibet, "Seeing Lhasa", is at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, until November. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum have important Tibetan collections; the new Living and Dying Gallery at the BM has a section on protection from danger and evil

Lesson ideas

KS1 Make a mask for yourself based on the face of the main figure in this painting: how would you make the face even scarier?

KS2 How would you depict your own protector figure in a painting? Find out about the myth of Shangri La. What did Tintin do in Tibet? Draw a cartoon strip set in the Himalayas.

KS3 How are the techniques of Tibetan art different from those in western art? Could you make a Tibetan painting with western techniques?

KS4 Look at the Pitt Rivers Museum and other websites. Make your own selection of Tibetan images to curate an online exhibition. KS5 Compare this painting with Apocalyptic images in western art, such as Albrecht Duerer's "Four Horsemen". Find examples of beauty and horror in contemporary art (for instance, from the Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy, 2000). How have these representations evolved?

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