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The Lungta Collaborative - The Living Blessings of Lo

Friday, January 14, 2011

Maureen Drdak
Maureen Drdak is a Philadelphia-based artist 

Get this article in PDF by clicking on the subscription link on the right menu. Send title of article to me at  archana@southasianarts.org, so that your PDF can be sent.
This article first appeared in the website Asian Art on 3rd of June, 2009. We are grateful to Ian Alsop for allowing to republish it here, on Maureen's request.

[In this article, Maureen discusses her paintings based on Tibetan Buddhist monk Tenzing Bista's poetic prayer on world peace and on the concept of Lung-ta or the horizontal flag lines which are supposed to take prayers to the heaven like a wind-horse. Click here to see the poetic prayer by Tenzing Bista and related material.] 

A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.  ~Albert Camus
Any great work of art... revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world - the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.  ~Leonard Bernstein, What Makes Opera Grand?
There is no surer method of evading the world than by following Art, and no surer method of linking oneself to it than by Art.  ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Note - Please click on all images to see them in large size. All photographs by Maureen Drdak.
LUNGTA Triptych, (l to r) Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani 

LUNGTA [1] -The Windhorse, is a collaboration of art, music, and dance, [2] premiered to standing room only at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on March 6th, 2009. The impetus for the collaborative and the imagery for its visual component-the LUNGTA Triptych - springs forth form from that sublime altar of the earth that is the Himalaya—the Abode of the Gods, and from an artistic response to the global impact of accelerating change on its remarkable cultures.  It was for purposes of gathering research for this project, that eminent Philadelphia composer, Andrea Clearfield, and I traveled to the remote mountain kingdom of Lo near the Tibetan border in late summer 2008.
What follows is a discussion of the visual imagery; but first, a brief history of the background is in order…

LUNGTA installation 

The collaborative’s origins lay in a commission from Linda Reichert, artistic director and founder of Network for New Music, a premiere national group dedicated to the commission and performance of new music.  Reichert clearly had a specific synergy in mind; Andrea and I, along with choreographer Manfred Fischbeck, were invited for lunch and presented with her vision for the upcoming  NNM 2008-09 season, which would devoted to collaborative explorations between music and the visual arts - appropriately entitled MIX.  As the thematic subject of our particular effort was open, my thoughts turned immediately to my recent trek in 2006 to the Himalayan Kingdom of Lo. The catalyst for that journey had been my determination to rediscover and identify a particular landscape first glimpsed many decades ago in my high school library. The location portrayed in that earlier sighting was unidentified, yet as an image of terrible beauty, I had never forgotten it. Prolonged bouts of web-surfing finally yielded results; a photo depicting a virtually identical image was identified as the Kali Gandacki river gorge in Upper Mustang, Nepal.  My mystery location finally revealed, I planned a journey about which I’d fantasized for decades. With my husband, Peter Horodowich, I traveled up that gorge beyond the massifs of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna to the kingdom of Lo Monthang in northwest Nepal in the fall of 2006.

   Top to Bottom - Kali Gandak, Fortresses of the Raja and Rani and Meditation Caves
Recalling now those memories of that spectacular land and its tenacious people, I was moved to celebrate them. Among many images, one immediately and repeatedly asserted itself – wind lashed Lung-ta atop desolate passes, furiously imploring the heavens. Defiant in their finitude, they were an affirmation of the perseverance of both pilgrims and gods in their eternal engagement with universal forces. Their urgent supplications alternating with joyous salutations, they assumed for me a particular poignancy when contemplating the increasingly grave challenges to our planet; in those mountains climactic change was everywhere in evidence. So moved, I initiated proto drawings and a proposal outlining my interpretive vision and presented it to my colleagues, who immediately felt an affinity for its philosophical message and expressive potential. Indeed, Linda Reichert’s inspiration was such that her vision now foresaw a physical journey to Lo; artistic integrity required the effort!  And so Andrea Clearfield and I traveled to Lo in Upper Mustang in the late summer of 2008; for Andrea the allure of vast and unknown vistas, [3] for myself, a return to a wild and beloved place; for both of us, the challenge of physical and mental borderlands and the liminal spaces between.

 Top to Bottom - Lung-ta in Lo and Upper Mustang 

Nepalese Himalayas and Border Checkpoint

Within Nepal, the kingdom [4] -or region-of Lo is a “restricted area”. The origin of this status lies both in political strife and economic agendas, past and present. As the Nepalese government forbids solitary travel within the region, this proscription brought us the companionship of Dr. Sienna Craig, a cultural anthropologist from Dartmouth College. Recent friends, we had serendipitously learned of each others plans to enter the kingdom, and determining that our agendas were harmonious, welcomed the opportunity to travel together.  Sienna’s companionship was an unexpected gift and delight; fluent in Nepali and Tibetan, with deep personal and cultural knowledge of the region [5], her skills were a tremendous asset. We were joined by two additional companions; our guide and liaison Gyaltso Bista, close friend of Sienna and amchi practitioner in the service of the Loba King, Jigme Palbar Bista, and as Sienna would be traveling with her not-quite four year old daughter Aida, she would be aided by Norzing-La, daughter of the Loba Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Dawa. With these advantages we would be able to travel with efficiency and speed. Traveling with the intrepid Aida added a unique dimension to the physical and psychological challenges, heightening both our sense of protective vigilance and connection, both with each other and with the humanity of the Lobas.  And so in the late summer of 2008, our group crossed into the restricted area of Upper Mustang, headed for the capital of Monthang, and on the trail of the Windhorse.
  Clockwise from Top - Drdak, Craig and Clearfield; Clearfield and Drdak; LUNGTA Party with Raja of Mustang 
 The LUNGTA Triptych’s visual imagery draws upon two living concepts from the Tibetan cultures of this remote Himalayan region; that of Lung-Ta, and that of the Rigsum Gompo—the Three Protectors. These concepts physically and metaphysically permeate the Kingdom of Lo, which is believed to be the last remaining enclave of pure Tibetan culture. Though the origins of these concepts lie deep within the ancient Central Asian, Himalayan, and Vedic cultures, their underlying sensibilities are familiar to the West.; many of our myths reflecting similar concepts and structures. But the relevance of this iconography, indeed that of any imagery, lies in its ongoing capacity to connect with the present; in this essential respect Lung-Ta lives!
Lung-Ta is multivalent in depth, flexibility, and relevance; it exists conceptually on dual planes of both the metaphysical and the vernacular - the universal and the personal – the eternal and the temporal.  The Lung-Ta, or Windhorse, lends its name to the Tibetan or Buddhist Prayer Flag. This common vernacular form can be seen strung at shrines, monasteries, and sites of spiritual significance, both public and private. Though images, specific text, and motivational intent of Lung-Ta may vary greatly, the predominant form is a square of cloth upon which is printed an image (from which its name is derived) of the Celestial Horse bearing upon its back the Flaming Jewels of the Dharma, surrounded by the text of Buddhist prayers and accompanied by the Four Animal Guardians. (Photo)  As it flies, it sanctifies the animating and permeating wind, carrying the blessings of the Dharma heavenward. Snapping in the wind, it recalls the sound of horse’s hooves. An evocative and recurring sight, Lung-ta signify places of power - high mountain passes, venerated gompas - and confer blessing and protection upon points of vulnerability - both human and inanimate.
Lung-ta with Windhorse 
  Lung-Ta also refers to a more subtle concept; that of the Mind riding upon the Spirit, as a Horseman rides upon a Horse.  Indeed, early Vedic peoples visualized the structure of the World-Cosmos as analogous to the horse’s body. In Tibetan, ta is horse and lung signifies not only breath or wind, but atmospheric energy, and further, the prana, or vital energy, surging through the subtle or vajra (diamond) body which all individuals are believed to posses.  The energy of the horse represents the Heavenly Wind; the great Pranic Breath of the Cosmos – upon which rides the Mind, that of the innate consciousness of the universe that is the inheritance of Man. In some traditions and interpretations this association becomes so close that the two are conflated; this merging of identification being common in early totemic cultures.  When properly aligned, through the purging of destructive negativity and ignorance, the Mind (Rider) soars into the Heavens upon the eternal energy of his Soul (Steed) and unimpeded attains Liberation, or moksha; the reconciliation of Spirit and Matter, Prusha and Prakriti, Atman and Brahman. 
The horse is pivotal to the cultural and physical life of Lo; it is the seminal symbol of both wealth and virtue. Indeed, in the writings of Dr. Sienna Craig, the intimacies of this cultural relationship extend to burial and medicine; the Loba and Mustangi regard for their horses often being evidenced in similarity of ritual practices for both humans and horses. The horse’s body provides a metaphor for innumerable emotional, physical and spiritual states. It offers an ever present reminder of the internal aspiration for the spiritual skill of the Cosmic Rider who is One with the Cosmic Horse; the great Buddhist poet Milarepa's "Song of the Galloping Horse of a Yogi" gives eloquent voice to this affinity:  
In the mountain hermitage which is my body,
In the temple of my breast
At the summit of the triangle of my heart,
The horse which is my mind flies like the wind.
He gallops on the plains of great bliss.
If he persists, he will attain the rank of a victorious Buddha.
Going backward, he cuts the root of samsara;
Going forward he reaches the high land of buddhahood.
Astride such a horse, one attains the highest illumination [6
As is here evident, the concept of Lung-ta is highly accommodating of creative synthesis. Its imagery is highly plastic, expressing both physical and metaphysical energies. In approaching my work for the collaborative, it was important for me to envision formal structures that could clearly translate into their expressive counterparts in music, so that this lovely duality would be effectively realized through the complimentary forms of music and image. Approach and treatment were selected with consideration of their translation into musical structure. Thus, forms evocative of wind and movement permeate the Triptych.  In my paintings, Lung-Ta is expressed through dynamic gesture incorporating elements of the equine form, as well as formal references to the cloud formations racing across the vast Tibetan plateau. The speed of the horse associates it with the wind, and through natural extension, the clouds. Indeed, among the Tibetans, one particular form of cloud with a twisting, trailing form is known as a “Mares Tail” [7]. Clouds, and all natural forms, are highly codified in Tibetan visual iconography, as are their symbolical associations. In determining Lung-Ta’s visual vocabulary, I have respectfully referenced these forms, interpreting and integrating them within the biomorphic structure. “Cloud Streets” (long continuous bands of clouds) and “Mares Tails” merge with muscular fragments, suggesting the shifting energies and moods of the Windhorse as it flies through the heavens, and convey this alliance between horse and wind. Their shifting states of existence are conveyed through biomorphic expression- the perpetuity of material flux - the endless “becoming” of the physical; the manifest within the immanent. 
LUNGTA Triptych, (l to r) Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani
I have used the expressive potential inherent in the equine form to allude to both the Windhorse itself, and additionally the qualities associated with each of the bodhisattvas of the Rigsum Gompo, described below. The tripartite further translates into musical movements; thus, in Manjushri, rolling clouds unfurl and stream outward, referencing the Bodhisattva who “dispels the Clouds of Ignorance.”
Their gentled streams merge into the following image—Avalokiteshvara. Here the cloud streets are calm, and the great biomorphic form is gently closed within itself, or “collected”; an equine term that signifies balance, harmony and benevolence.
The cloud streets continue onwards, and in Vajrapani, the bodhisattva emblematic of skillful method or action (vajra=lightening), they explode in a lightening stroke outward and off the picture plane; the resulting energy resonates and reverberates throughout the jagged biomorphic structure.
The horizontal rush of the cloud streets manifest the universal winds and complement the surging tsa lung, which conceptually ground the work. Passing through all three images, they are here depicted as three pure gold threads—the Prana channels - carrying the breath of life. Crowning the anterior plane of all three images, the deep blue of space recedes upward according to Tibetan sensibility. Movement, light, and speed are the essence of LUNGTA.
 Rigsum Gompo and Offering Wall 
 Tsarang Monastery 

My art has long been grounded in both external and internal locations of extremis; the deserts, seas and heights of the earth, and from the great philosophical visions which continually spring forth from them. As such, the Himalaya is a sanctified place where both body and mind are driven inexorably towards the reconciliation of opposites. One is relentlessly aware of physical limitations, and yet, paradoxically, experiences a limitless sense of euphoric connection. The grace of transcendence seems momentarily within reach. Through this requisite submission of the ego to the abrasion of vast and impersonal forces, our apprehension of the eternal is ever refined, our sense of connection ever deepened, our creativity continually enhanced.
As mentioned in the first lines of this essay, a heightened sense of cultural change and fragility informed our work. Societies are rapidly changing, increasingly stretching the limits of communal connection. Art can be a powerful force for easing this dislocation; it can offer a momentary sense of communal transcendence-tenuous, yet essential; West meeting East; thesis and antithesis birthing synthesis, yet one more variation of evolution of Self through Other.  Art can maintain meaningful cultural identity and be a positive force for self definition-a grounding matrix enabling individuals to locate themselves within their societies, and their world. Lung-Ta is an allegory for the human soul and its’ relationship with the eternal/universe; though aesthetically autonomous, LUNGTA exists, ultimately, for communal benefit. It is my hope that in this respect, it accords with the Tibetan spiritual aesthetic, and honors the spirit of the mountains from which this work is drawn.
The documentation of the Lungta Collaborative will be presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Dr. Amy Heller through the auspices of the Office of Tibet, (Geneva, Switzerland) during his 2009 visit to Switzerland.*
I wish to extend my deepest thanks and appreciation to both Dr. Sienna Craig and Dr. Amy Heller. Their generous and invaluable advice, support and guidance during all stages of this project was broad and deep, and always gracefully given.
* Documentation of the Lungta Collaborative was delivered to His Holiness in 2009.

1. LUNGTA refers to the collaborative work and its components of image, music, and dance.
Lung-Ta refers both to the concept, and its vernacular form of the prayer flag.
2. To our effort would later be joined the choreography of Manfred Fischbeck and Group Motion Dance. Notes on both Clearfield’s music and Manfred Fischbeck’s choreography can be found at the conclusion of this essay. (Clearfield and Fischbeck)
3. David Patrick Stearns (Classical Music Critic), “From Nepal back to Philadelphia, premiering a changed music”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, 2009, March 5th.
4. As of October 2008 the current King of Lo, Jigme Palbar Bista, 25th in the line of Loba kings, was stripped of his crown by the  Maoist government of Nepal.
5. Sienna Craig, “Horses Like Lightening; A Story of Passage through the Himalayas”, Wisdom Publications, 2008.
6. The 100,000 Songs of Milarepa, translation by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa.
7. Robert Beer, “The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs”, Shambala, Boston 1999, pg 24.
8. Interestingly, Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan-Chenrezig), is manifested in wrathful form as the horse-headed Hayagriva, the Wisdom Lord, and has Vedic antecedents; the neighing of the horse shatters ignorance and evil, etc.; the list of  associative  relationships are abundant.
9. See the Prayer written by Tenzin S. Bista and the cursive transcription. (Link)
10. It is important for me to state that I am not literate in Tibetan (in any form). The prayer was transcribed from  the original block script, to kyug yig, by Kunga Nyima Delotsang, a friend of Dr. Craig's in the Tibetan community of Ithaca; I then transcribed the cursive to the paintings, endeavoring  to accurately transcribe as possible, consulting with both Drs. Craig and Heller in the process. It was also translated by Dr. Craig, who is an anthropologist at Dartmouth College.

Maureen Drdak can be contacted at maureen@maureendrdak.com 

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