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Virtual Buddhist Art Apprenticeships: Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo's Online Ancient Tibetan Spiritual Art Form

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

Almost 20 years ago, a young Californian woman Leslie Freilich walked into the atelier of a Tibetan Buddhist artist in the Indian city of Dharamsala and fell in love with the Buddhist image that he was stitching. It was a silk mosaic depiction of the half-human, half-bird deity Garuda and was formed by sewing together many small pieces of colored silk. It was rich in color and texture, intricate in detail and profound in spirit. Though Freilich was in India working as an economic development volunteer for the Tibetan refugees there, she knew immediately that she wanted to devote herself to learning this complex spiritual art form. She spoke very little Tibetan at the time, and the artist she approached to teach her, T.G. Dorjee Wangdu, had never taught a non-Tibetan before, but he agreed to take her on, and she apprenticed with him for four years. Now an established artist in this ancient Buddhist textile art, Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo (her artist name) has decided to pass her skills on to others. She does so from a virtual atelier, instructing students all around the world using such modern tools as pdf files, web cams and teleconferencing via Skype.

Screenshot of Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo's Online Atelier.
Screenshot of Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo's Online Atelier.

From the Buddha's first sermons on a hill-top to Buddhist art classes on a lap-top, it seems that the spiritual world is quite compatible with the virtual one. Rinchen-Wongmo, currently has 15 students in the U.S., Switzerland, Australia and even as far north as Nunavut in Canada working on their own pieced-silk Buddhist creations. Once they enroll in her class, they are sent a package of silk and other materials, a pdf file of instructions and a schedule of monthly group teleconferences and individual Skype calls. Then they start stitching. They begin with a lotus (similar to the one shown above), symbolizing our own pure Buddha nature, free from the mud and dirt of the material world; one student who has been working with her for over four years is even creating a Buddha figure. "Students tell me that this work makes them more attentive and aware, and that that awareness spreads to other areas of their lives," says Rinchen-Wongmo. Her Australian student, Kerryn Coombe, who works as a counselor, recently claimed, "My stitching work is as much a part of my spiritual practice as my meditation and dharma rituals."

It was the spiritual nature of this art form that had originally appealed to Rinchen-Wongmo when she first encountered it in India. She was a Buddhist but, she admits, "I found it very hard to meditate." She was fascinated by Tibetan art and culture, and was aware of Tibetan thangka - cloth images of Buddhist deities painted with mineral pigments and gold. She was also aware that such paintings have long been offered to temples as a means of acquiring religious merit, and that they are used by Buddhist practitioners in rituals and meditation as visual aids in their pursuit of enlightenment. It was her encounter with the pieced-silk thangkas (göchen thangka), however, that taught her the immense power that Buddhist imagery can have on the artist.

In Buddhist cultures, it is believed that making images of the Buddha and other deities can help focus the mind. For the small number of artists who have been creating pieced-silk thangkas since their invention in Tibet in the 15th century, the painstaking and very time-consuming process of building up an image of a deity out of pieces of silk is a form of artistic meditation. First they draw the figure, following the exact proportions of the deities as described in sacred Buddhist texts, to ensure the deity's spiritual power is preserved. Then individual design elements are formed by creating three-dimensional outlines out of horse hair wrapped in silk thread. These bordered elements are then cut out and stitched together. Many embroidered details are added along the way, the most important of which are the eyes of the deity, since it is through them that its spirit is transmitted. Finally, the image is mounted on a brocade backing for hanging.

Creating the Image of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, Lord of Compassion), pieced-silk thangka by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo, 2008.
Creating the Image of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, Lord of Compassion), pieced-silk thangka by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo, 2008.

Rinchen-Wongmo's exploration of pieced-silk thangkas taught her to meditate. Over the years, she has sat for many hours on end creating her sacred images - depictions of the Medicine Buddha, who sits holding medicine that can heal spiritual ailments, Padmasambhava, the father of Tibetan Buddhism, Green Tara, the compassionate goddess who is ready to help anyone suffering at a moment's notice. Each image takes months to complete. People tell her that they wouldn't have the patience to do what she does. "You don't need patience if you love what you are doing." That is the secret of meditation - finding a place in your mind that is so peaceful and comfortable that you can lose yourself in it. "In making fabric thangkas," she explains, "I'm immersed in an ancient river of insight that flows from Buddha Shakyamuni through countless spiritual masters, accomplished artists, and simple tailors."

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo Stitching in her Studio in Ventura.
Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo Stitching in her Studio in Ventura.

Rinchen-Wongmo admits that she was fortunate enough to be taught one-on-one by Tibetan masters, so her own learning process was a very intimate one. She realizes that a virtual apprenticeship can be less than personal, so has strived to create an intimate on-line learning environment. "We have a private online membership area called the Stitching Buddhas Atelier," she explains. "The Atelier mimics, in some way, a physical room where we gather to share and ask questions. Students are encouraged to post photos of their own work to get my feedback. And everyone can see each other's photos and read the feedback, incorporating what they see and read into their own learning process. Sometimes I post additional photos there to illustrate a point that remains unclear in the lesson. I've also made several additional videos which students can view there again and again. I love this community part of the process. This is where it becomes most like a real, live apprenticeship or atelier experience." For the most dedicated and mobile students, she hosts a Stitching Buddhas Retreat, where teacher and students can actually sew together and get to know each other better.

The 8th-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism Padmasambhava is said to have predicted that "When the iron bird flies and the horse runs on wheels, the Tibetans will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth, and the Buddhadharma [the Buddha's teachings] will come to the land of the Red Man." Knowing this, it seems less strange that an American woman is teaching a traditional Tibetan Buddhist fabric art over the internet to people in the Arctic and Australia. When minds are open, hearts are aligned, and the internet connection is strong, there is no end to what the human spirit can accomplish.

For more information about Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo's art work, the documentary film about her, Creating Buddhas: The Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas (directed by Isadora Gabriella Leidenfrost) and her Virtual Apprenticeship Program, visit her website.

Some of her work will be on view in an exhibition called Fiber Art Masterpieces at Ojai Valley Museum, opening January 19, 2013.

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