The Architecture of Enlightenment: Pema Namdol Thaye

Blue Print of the Shi-tro Mandala Temple by Pema Namdol Thaye, 2013, ink on paper. | Courtesy of the artist.
Blue Print of the Shi-tro Mandala Temple by Pema Namdol Thaye, 2013, ink on paper. | Courtesy of the artist.

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.


The front-room office of a single-story home in Canyon Country is an unlikely place to be designing sacred Buddhist architecture for a temple in the Himalayas. Seated at his desk surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist hanging scrolls and jars of bright colored powdered pigments, Tibetan artist Pema Namdol Thaye is doing just this. Using his skills as a designer and painter of traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings, Thaye is translating a two-dimensional image of a mandala -- a sacred Buddhist diagram used for meditation -- into a three-dimensional temple building large enough to hold over 1,000 Buddhist disciples at a time. It will even have an underground parking lot.

To Buddhists, particularly those from Tibet and esoteric Buddhist schools in Japan, mandalas are among the most powerful tools used in visualization rituals. Highly geometric constructs rendered with iconometric precision and intricate decorative detailing, these diagrams represent the abodes of enlightened Buddhist beings. By focusing on particular deities in their sacred abodes, practitioners strive to form a connection with these higher beings and awaken higher qualities in themselves, thus bringing them closer to spiritual enlightenment. Most mandalas are two dimensional, either painted on silk and mounted on a wall for use in rituals, or built up using colored sands on a flat surface. However, the structure of a mandala is fundamentally architectural; its form resembles a palace viewed from above, with a central hall and gates at each cardinal direction, surrounded by gardens with ponds of blossoming lotuses. This is why Thaye, one of the few living masters of mandala painting, has been commissioned to use his painted images to design a large, three-dimensional mandala as a place of worship.

Dimensional Shi-tro Mandala by Pema Namdol Thaye, 2000, wood, clay and pigments. | Courtesy of the artist and Ari Bhod, Tehachapi.

Thaye's temple design is based on the Shi-tro Mandala (Mandala of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the One Hundred Buddha Families), a mandala believed to have transformative powers that help spread peace. The design was commissioned by Rigzin Dorjee Rimpoche, the founder and head of the Nyingma Institute and the Nyingma Retreat Center in Sikkim, a state in northern India bordering Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. The Nyingma sect is the oldest lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, dating back to the 8th century, when the Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava is believed to have brought tantric, or esoteric, Buddhist teachings to Tibet. Rigzin Dorjee Rimpoche was familiar with Thaye's paintings and with the three-dimensional mandalas that he had created for Ari Bhod, a Nyingma Buddhist community in California. In 2000, Thaye completed a smaller three-dimensional Shi-tro Mandala for Ari Bhod as a tool for peace. A spectacular work measuring over 7 feet high and 20 feet in diameter, the structure has been shown at several museums in California and is now displayed at Ari Bhod's retreat center in Tehachapi.

Painted Shi-tro Mandala (Mandala of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the One Hundred Buddha Families) by Pema Namdol Thaye, 2012, pigments and gold on canvas. | Courtesy of the artist.

For this much larger Shi-tro Mandala, the Rimpoche has purchased the temple site, received the blessing of the local mayor and the community, and has raised the funds to start building the temple in 2013. To meet the deadline for the designs, Thaye has postponed his many other art projects - including painting commissions and illustrating a graphic novel based on Buddhist teachings - to focus on this project. "Some people in Sikkim have asked why someone in the United States has been hired to build the temple instead of a local artist," admits Thaye. He laughs as we discuss the irony of Indians outsourcing to the US for their Buddhist temple design. Thaye is probably the only Buddhist artist alive with the skills and experience to design such a temple, but he is very humble about his involvement in the cross-continental project, saying simply, "It is a great honor to be asked to design this building."

Model of the Shi-tro Mandala by Pema Namdol Thaye, 2013, wood. | Courtesy of the artist.

There is nothing humble about the building itself though. An imposing five-story structure in the small Sikkimese village of Martam, this mandala-temple will be lavishly decorated with bright pigments and gold and surrounded by ponds and beautiful flowers. At the very center and top will be five large Buddhist statues, the central of which is the Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, flanked by the compassionate deity Avalokiteshvara and the Buddhist sage Padmasambhava. Below these, at the second and third levels, will be the one hundred peaceful and wrathful deities, who represent enlightened qualities, such as compassion and altruism, within us all. All around and below these figures will be an outdoor assembly area large enough to hold 1,000 people for public teachings. Around it will be a border of pond and flowers. Below this is an underground level with smaller halls for teachings, a café and VIP suites where guests can stay. The lowest level is for parking, though most visitors to this place of worship will likely arrive by foot or public transport.

Pema Namdol Thaye with Rigzin Dorjee Rimpoche in Sikkim. | Courtesy of Pema Namdol Thaye.
Site of the Temple, Martam, Sikkim. | Courtesy of Pema Namdol Thaye.

Rigzin Dorjee Rimpoche's hopes for this temple are as high as its spectacular setting. Although Sikkim is primarily a Hindu state, it also has a large Buddhist community, and the temple will provide local Buddhist and Hindus alike with a place of worship. He and others in this small Himalayan village also hope that the temple will also attract foreign pilgrims and tourists to Sikkim, a tiny state with a population of just over 600,000 people. And, of course, it will help spread peace. The Nyingma Institute's website describes the project as follows: "The temple and its surrounding will be decorated with colorful prayer flags and decorative lighting. There will be many trees and flowers planted around the temple. It is designed to establish an idea about how the Buddha's Pure Land looks like."

The temple site will represent nothing less than a Buddhist paradise, a perfect pure land where enlightened beings reside. In Buddhist practice, designing such a realm is seriously good action, or karma, since it will help many other Buddhists in their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and spread peace. As he puts the final touches on his model and draws the last lines on his blue prints here in Southern California, Pema Namdol Thaye should allow himself a few moments to reflect on the possibility that he himself is now a little closer to enlightenment.


More information about Pema Namdol Thaye's work can be found on his website.


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