In spite of longstanding traditions of gender inequality, Tibetan Buddhism is slowly transforming into a more gender-balanced religion thanks to one of its oldest art forms.
Tibetan Buddhist artwork rarely depicts subjects that are devoid of religious meaning. In fact, Buddhism’s Thangka artform is widely known to be one of the most religious genres of artwork in existence. While the name may not sound familiar, if you have traveled anywhere in Asia you have probably been offered a Thangka scroll, well-known for its bright colors and intricate drawings of various Buddhist deities on linen or cotton tapestries. While some Thankgas feature peaceful Bodhisattvas meditating among floating lotus flowers, others depict brightly colored deities engaging in sexual activity or violence amid a sea of angry faces. Today, tourists have become the main buyers of Thangka paintings, despite the fact that most of them lack a fundamental understanding of the true meaning behind many of these tapestries. While they were designed as aids for meditation, their vibrant colors and themes are attractive in their own right.
THANGKA ARTWORK GROWS IN POPULARITY
Over the past three decades the Thangka artwork market has expanded, both in Asia and internationally, driving up prices significantly. Thangkas have been transformed from religious objects to commodities, costing anywhere from hundreds to millions of dollars, depending on the size, pigment, quality, etc. In 2014, a Chinese collector set a record for the most expensive Chinese artwork ever sold at international auction when he bought a 600-year-old Thangka tapestry for $45 million dollars.
A substantial uptick in demand of Thangka artwork has required big changes in the production process of this 1,300-year-old tradition. As recently as ten years ago, the skill of creating a Thangka artwork was only passed down to the male lineage of Buddhist families. However, the demand for these laborious and time intensive pieces has recently pushed this outdated tradition into the modern age, requiring the pool for artists to grow in size and gender.
THE RISE OF FEMALE THANGKA ARTISTS
Now a successful Thangka painter, 41-year old woman Gopini Tamang was interviewed by Nepalese newspaper My Republica, recounting her memories of the completely driven male industry as she was growing up. “When I was young the thought of pursuing Thangka painting didn’t even cross my mind. Even though I was from Rammechhap and almost every household there is engaged in this business, it just didn’t seem like a possibility. I had never seen any other women engaged in the profession and also as daughters, we were always busy. We always had so many household chores to complete.”
While both her father and her brothers all worked as Thangka artists, she was never extended the opportunity to try. Today however, the situation is different, and the industry employs thousands of women artists. The increase in demand for Thangka paintings has not only improved the livelihoods of those living in areas like Nepal and Southwest China, whose regional histories are deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhist culture and history, it has also created an opportunity for women to climb out of the shadow of a long-standing patriarchal tradition and partake in the growth of the local economy.
UNRAVELING BUDDHIST STEREOTYPES
Fantasized by the Western world for its pacifism and principles of loving kindness, Tibetan Buddhism has surprisingly held a long history of both violence and misogyny. Many westerners and new-age converts of the Buddhist religion would be shocked to hear past lives of the Buddha, in which he harms or murders out of “compassion”. Some may say these stories represent ancient Buddhist principles, but as recently as 2009, the Dalai Lama gave a talk at Harvard in favor of America’s counteractions against Osama Bin Laden. He applied basic Buddhist principles to modern-day events, explaining that “wrathful forceful action” may be “violence on a physical level”, but if motivated by compassion, is considered “essentially nonviolence” in the Buddhist tradition.
Equally surprising is the Buddhist stance on women. In fact, the most commonly used Tibetan word for woman, lümen or kyemen, literally translates into English as “inferior being” or “lesser birth.” According to ancient Buddhist writings, the Gautama Buddha refused several times to admit women into the monastic order before finally accepting the request of his stepmother, who raised him from childhood. In fact, he was quoted as having predicted that his sangha would last only 500 years instead of 1,000 if women were let into the order. None can be sure of the accuracy of these historical events, as some Buddhist scholars suggest they were written later by androcentric monks. Regardless, today’s status quo still demonstrates the inequality that women live with in the Buddhist religion. Women attempting to become fully ordained in the Buddhist faith must make 311 vows, compared to men who make 227. Many of these added vows revolve around a nun’s subordinate role to monks. In several countries, Buddhist nuns frequently suffer from worse living conditions than monks, and are not privy to the majority of the education that is offered to their male counterparts, creating a large gap in numbers between male and female Buddhist teachers.
Much of the gender equality issue in Buddhism is rooted in the religion’s main principles. According to many Buddhist sacred texts, women are seen synonymously with sex, sexual desire, and temptation. In the Buddhist religion, abstaining from sensual (and sexual) misconduct is one of the main moral behavioral and ritual guidelines for lay devotees. For monks, this precept increases in severity to no sexual activity at all. In an effort to implement this precept, women were made to be seen as dangerous and polluted due to their sexual potency. Their bodies became a symbol of weakness or gluttony. In fact, orthodox Buddhist culture considers a female body an impediment to enlightenment. The Buddhist reading The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa contains quotes like “Because of my sinful karma, I was given this inferior female body.”
The transfer of religions across continents often alters aspects of the religion itself, as is seen through most Western ignorance of Buddhism’s misogynistic principles. Admittedly, the Dalai Lama has spoken publicly on more than one occasion about promoting equality between men and women on the path towards enlightenment. However, the vestiges of unequal treatment within Buddhist traditions in Asia are still strong. This is why the change in the Thangka industry has been a big leap for women’s roles in the Buddhist community throughout Asia.
SEEING CHANGE IN SOUTHWEST CHINA
China’s Thangka market has flourished in several provinces in the southwest. As there are many different veins of Tibetan Buddhism, so are there many styles of Thangka artwork. In Sichuan province, Jonang Thangkas, originating from the province’s Rangtang County, are being studied by young men and women throughout the area. 21-year-old Seqinglamu of Rangtang county was given a chance to begin studying the art of Jonang Thangka when she was just 13 years old. She told BON Cloud News about the opportunity to study the art at a local heritage center, which began offering Jonang Thangka painting sessions to the public as welfare. As an alternative to formal education, an opportunity she did not have, Seqinglamu started attending classes when the Jonang Cultural Heritage Center opened in 2009. Both she and her fellow classmates say she has grown and come into her own thanks to her work in Thangka art. “I don’t regard Thangka as a craft or a skill but a way of understanding my own body and mind. I enter my inner thoughts through painting and express them through a mind without barriers.”
Despite her gratitude for the opportunity, she said it’s not an easy skill to master. In fact, one Jonang Thangka painting could take anywhere from a few months to a decade to complete. It’s certainly not for those who lack patience. “Sometimes I can paint something and I feel bad. But I have the confidence that I can do better if I try harder. So I continue to paint…….I don’t care about the outside world and what they say. I’ve kept going for eight years.” Seqinglamu was one of many women to graduate in the first class of Jonang Thangka artists from the Jonang Culture Heritage Center in 2017, marking a new age in the Thangka industry and in greater the Buddhist culture.
What started as a small trend of tourists buying exotic artwork has created a space for women to gain ground in the Buddhist community. While centuries of imbalances will not disappear overnight, the global spread of Thangka art is helping to loosen the vestiges of gender inequality in Buddhism one painting at a time.