Meditation with Needle and Thread

The art of silk thangkas

One of the literal meanings of the Tibetan word for “meditate” is to familiarize or habituate. Making a sacred image by hand is a profound process of familiarization with the qualities of an enlightened mind and with the tools many spiritual masters have used to realize it. Thus stitching a sacred image is meditation with needle and thread. It's a constant encounter with imagery that embodies our deepest aspirations to be awake, compassionate, loving and fully alive in the moment.

Most thangkas (Buddhist scroll paintings) are painted on canvas and framed in brocade. A tiny subset of thangkas were made with silk and thread since the 14th century. This use of silk to create Buddhist images emerged out of complex interconnections among the Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian empires. No thorough historical study has been made of this development. It's clear, though, that silk was commonly offered as tribute by Chinese emperors to Tibetan lamas and Tibetan artists were commissioned to produce paintings for the Chinese.

At some point, copies of Tibetan paintings began to be produced in China using Chinese embroidery and tapestry (kesi) techniques. Ironically, the precious materials, rarity, and beauty of these silken images endowed them with greater prestige than the paintings they were copied from. When the imperial Chinese court presented these to the Tibetan religious officials, a process of reciprocal inspiration ensued. Later, Tibetan artists began to use their own indigenous appliqué techniques to produce original silk thangkas.

Though the term appliqué is often used when speaking of this unusual art form, it is not strictly correct. There is no base, no backing cloth to which pieces are applied. There's no single ground on which everything rests. Rather, each separately outlined piece of silk depends on its neighbors for support. Its strength is in its interconnections.

As one of the very few westerners formally trained in the rare Buddhist art of silk appliqué thangkas, I am passionate about the preservation and evolution of this cultural tradition. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave his blessings to my work and encouraged me to make images that speak to the spiritual aspirations of people across cultures and religions.

Encouraged by this guidance, I have expanded beyond traditional boundaries to incorporate contemporary textile techniques and real-world imagery in my work. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to study, make, teach and be taught by such precious art. May it bring you joy!

Leslie mentors a select group of students around the world through her Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program. Her story is the subject of the acclaimed documentary film, Creating Buddhas: the Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas. You can view her work online at www.threadsofawakening.com and in person at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura, CA. Email: info@threadsofawakening.com

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