Marian van der Horst-Lem lives in
Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Before her meeting with Tibetan culture, she
specialized in the fabric painting. Marian was strong impressed by Buddhist
murals in Indian caves. She began to learn the Tibetan art under guidance of
the English teacher of thangka-painting in Mangsar Style. After two years,
he advised Marian to try continuing the study with Tibetan master.
Therefore, in 1986, she came to Belgium to course of Gega Lama, who became
the main her Teacher, and during eight years she studied under his
third her Teacher is
Sherab Palden Beru the Tibetan thangka artist from Samye Ling, Scotland.
Now more than sixty thangkas are drawn by Marian, one of them
Refuge Tree had needed three years for its painting. Also Marian took
part in mural painting in Copenhagen Dharma Centre and others.
In 1993, Marian was invited to
Ukraine, Kharkiv, for
teaching of thangka-painting (firstly by Lama Ole Nidal), in 1994 to Russia,
St Petersburg, since this time
she visited Russia just every summer. So in general, more than
Buddhists took part in retreats, from Russia as well as from Ukraine and
other republics. Also all the year round Marian teaches the thangka-painting
in her homeland and twice a year in Germany (Frankfurt and Berlin).
Gega Lama (1931-1996) was not only
outstanding master of thangka-painting but also a sculpture, founder of
ritual things, dancer and singer.
He was born in the village of Rinchen
Ling, Eastern Tibet. At his eight he began studying Tibetan calligraphy with
Lama Drontsay and at eleven entered the monastery Chokor Namgyal Ling at
Tsabtsa where he studied Buddhist doctrine, dance, painting and music. Gega
Lama's first painting teacher was Lama Chokyong. In 1947, at his sixteen,
Gega Lama became a student of the greatly respected painting teacher,
Thangla Tsewang. By the age of twenty-two, Gega Lama was recognized as an
artist in his own right. In 1959 he fled Tibet as a result of the 1959
uprising and settled in Northern India, Darjeeling, where he rebuilt the body of diagrams
and methods necessary to the painting of Tibetan thangkas.Gega Lama and his wife Rinzing Chodon (born in 1943, she
was a studentGega Lama)
had two children: a daughterYangchen(born 1966)andson of
Tharphen (born in 1973).
Further years Gega Lama lived in Katmandu,
Nepal; there he worked in his studio and tough students-he put much effort
in their education. In 1978, His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa Ranjung
Rigpey Dorje entrusted the Gega Lama to extend the Gardri traditions to the
Europe. Gega Lama conducted few thangka-painting retreats in Belgium and
taught this art to Western students. Gega Lama’s book “Principles of Tibetan
Art” (printed 1982 in Belgium) is the indispensable guideline in Tibetan
iconography. This beautiful book was reedited in 2011 by Gega Lama’s son (in
Nowadays Gega Lama's son Tharphen
Lingtsang continues his father's life-work and conducts thangka-painting
courses in Europe.
Thangla Tsewang was born in 1902 in
the region of Arap in Derge Palyul in Eastern Tibet. Gifted from an early
age, he studied painting and sculpture under two accomplished Gardri
masters, Wari Lama Lodro, who excelled at drawing, and Payma Rabten, a
holder of the Karsho lineage, who excelled in coloring. Beginning with this
extensive training in the arts, Thangla Tsewang spent his entire life in
ceaseless creative activity. The previous H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche, Payma
Wangchok Gyalpo, once said that his paintings were so good as to be fit to
be installed in shrines without being formally consecrated. It is said that
whoever viewed his work, whether they were discerning or not, found the
forms illuminating and in accord with the import of the sutras and tantras;
his work was considered authentic by all.
with Marian van der Horst-Lem
(Moscow, Russia, 2011)
Interview was taken in Buddhist
Gar under Moscow (Pavlov Posad) during the traditional Summer retreat of
with Marian van der Horst-Lem (Kaluga
retreat centre Buddha's Place of Enlightenment,
Marian in interview took part her students: Alla Fadeeva, Zalina
Toguzaeva, Vadim Gudkov and Kristina Popova. Moscow, 2009.
Question: In the beginning we would like to know, of
course, how you started to paint thangkas, who were your first teachers. We
know it, of course, but…
Answer: I was an artist; I was educated as an artist.
But I was never really satisfied, there was always lacking something.
Happily, I found, by my traveling to India, thangka and Buddha, than I got a
possibility to study by Andy Weber, so he was my first teacher. I studied
some weeks during some summers with him and then he said: "You go to a
Tibetan master, you have to go. I don't teach you anymore" and he did not
give his reason. So we found each other, I found Gega Lama. He came very
late, because he intended to be at the beginning of July in Belgium, and by
the end of August he was not still there. Only a few days were left, so I
had two or three days together with him. He gave me some things to do so
that I could draw at home to practice. I bought the big book, "Principles of
Tibetan Art" by his hand. It was available at that time.
Then, also I went to Scotland to Sherab Palden Beru two or
three times, something like that. It was a Buddhist center, Kagyu center.
There I painted on a big thangka, one of a series of several thangkas for
the big gompa, each of them 3 meters wide and about 2 meters high. In
Scotland I painted a big thangka. And he knew I was a painter already. I had
to prove myself as a painter so I painted a ball; I shaded it, something
like an orange. I made it very natural. And he said, OK, you can paint.
It was funny because Sherab Palden Beru could not talk
English, he could only say "Good night", or "Good morning", so he could not
teach us with words but he taught us in a different way, and it was
amazing what we learned. I went several times to Scotland for many weeks and
visited then also Andy Weber who lived in the lake-district very close to
Question: And how did you get to know about him?
Answer: Andy Weber told me that there was a big need
of thangka painters in Scotland. You can go there, you don't have to pay
there; you can stay there and help them. So I went there several times. And
I went every year to Gega Lama, during eight years. And I was amazed: he had
so many students, twenty at once — at one course, at one summer. Very, very
few happened to be a painter: I see only two people, three people at most,
who became professional painters. Then I thought: you must have the karma,
all the situations have to give you the possibilities, enable you. So this
is not a very big story.
Question: So, your teachers were Andy Weber, Sherab
Answer: …and Gega Lama. Gega Lama was my main teacher.
But Andy Weber put me on the path; he gave me the initial instructions
during the first years. He taught me also how to prepare the gold, it was
very important. He was really a very good first teacher, he is a very good
person, and I still like him and visit him when he is in Holland.
Question: Tell about your first coming to Russia.
Answer: Funny, in fact I was not invited, but Bruni Feist was
invited, she is also a thangka painter, one of the three students of Gega
Lama, who succeeded to be a thangka painter. Ole Nydahl invited her two or
three times. And one time, in 1993 Bruni and I were painting a big
wall-painting, the wheel of interdependent links, in Denmark and Ole was
there and invited Bruni again. But she did not like to go to Russia for
teaching, and then I said I could go. Ole was glad. He organized it. And the
first year they sponsored the whole course, so the group did not have to
pay, but the German Kagyu group did it. Gabi was responsible, she organized
Question: Did Gabi find the participants of the
Answer: Yes, she found sponsors and organized the whole
course. Don't forget that Ole's Russian students did again and again ask for
someone teaching on thangka-painting. And it was the first time. And it was
funny here, because at that time I moved from one house to other house. It
was in the beginning of February, and in March we were in Denmark, and Ole
agreed that I would come. And then I was just at home, and the telephone was
just attached to new connection, it was seven o'clock in the morning. And
there was a ring, and they asked me: Marianne, could you come to Russia? I
went for the first time in my life to Russia. And I was gone; I think it was
June, or July. And also that year my mother was ill and died. Yeah, every
year I came, except two years: my husband became very ill in 2002 and asked
me not to go, and the year after his death I also did not go. So since 1993
I came and this is my 14th time.
Question: What development has happened within these
14 years, what has changed in Russia, in students?
Answer: The first students I still have: they are
Tanya, Misha, Natasha Machs. I still meet them, and they have contact with
me. I saw in the beginning that the financial situation was very poor. I
remember that during some years people could hardly pay for the course. And
I remember — especially Ukraine, don't remember the name of the place — Phowa was there. Ole had just been there, and they organized my course
immediately after the Phowa. I saw that there was a very bad financial
situation. And they have even hidden some students, so that no one knew that
there were some extra students, and they took the food extra so that to take
to them, and they shared the bed, and so on, that kind of situation. The
official office did not know that there were some extra people. Of course,
the organizer of the course knew. But those who gave the building, the food,
and so on, they did not know. And especially Ukraine, it was so poor. I
remember that it rained heavily, and it rained down the staircase, like a
Also Vika from Saint-Petersburg was there. I have been to
many places: several times to Ukraine, I have been in Kalmykia, between the
Caspian and the Black Sea, in Buryatia, Saint-Petersburg three or four
times, Moscow I think now eight times, at the Ladoga-lake, in the North-West
close to the Finnish border. And we lived in the place of the woman, she was
connected with the Hermitage, she was a photographer, who photographed for
the catalogues and so on, for the Hermitage. And it was the first time
Larisa translated for me.
Question: And it is interesting, did such material
problems, limitations affect somehow the works, the style?
Answer: Let me say, that Russian people are very
devoted. Very active, they want very much to learn, and put much effort.
Most of the time most of them were working until two or three in the night.
They could not be stopped, so they continued and continued. Sometimes I came
in the morning, and some of them were sleeping over their work! I had never
met such enthusiasm. I don't know till when they work here, I have not seen,
not so long, not very late, I think? (Till one — two...) Aha? I didn't know.
And I also remember that in the beginning I had to buy some materials like
brushes and paints (Windsor and Newton) in Holland — the students ordered
for them and I brought them with me. And now everything is available. Is it
so? Can you buy every colour?
(Zalina and Alla: There is nothing here! We were lucky
when we painted Dorje Chang, we managed to buy the colours we have never
seen in our life. That's how the blessing works! And now, ther is nothing
there again! But we think the situation will change. We remember how we were
looking for glue all over country, and now it is available everywhere. Misha
and Tanya told us that they were looking for some paints in garbage, since
there was lack of paints).
And now I think all Russia is comparable with this special
region of Moscow, and even to Holland, to the West. Of course, I lived in
many-many different houses, but I think the last years I lived in more
luxurious houses; at first I experienced very small apartments with very
small space. In the beginning I was amazed, how many people could fit into a
small kitchen two by two, let me say. And also I noticed the sense of
solidarity, though the level of life was so low, that people who could not
pay for anything were sustained by others who also did not have so much
money, they paid for those, so that they could learn. And what I also liked
was the contact ability: people touch each other; it is not done in our
country, almost not. I remember the banya, where people washed each other — hair, and so on. It was astonishing! I did not get used to it at all!
Question: And such a question: which qualities are
developed by thanka painting?
Answer: Because you have to use the Six Paramitas, it
has a big impact on your life! It takes you a lot of time, you need long
time for sky, and sometimes you are fourteen days only on one sky. So you
give your free time, and also you need patience — a lot of patience. You
need enthusiasm; you have to stay on, to continue the process. And you need
to put effort in it, because it is not always easy. I remember the
situation, when I had to finish a big thanka, it was so hot in my studio,
sweat covered all my body, and I had to put something beneath my hands so
that I would not lose sweat on the painting. And there was really effort I
put in it. And then, you need concentration, of course, lot of
concentration. You have to find pictures, you have to look in books, be
attentive. You have to invent many things. Wisdom is expressed in such a
way. So I'm shaped by that, I'm shaped by those paramitas. And, besides, of
course, my spiritual practice. I got for painting different initiations,
e.g. one needs to have highest Annutara-yoga-tantra initiation when you have
to paint a deity in that category. It all has to go in combination.
I remember, my teacher Gelek Rinpoche asked me for a big
thangka, I remember I was sitting in America in his house, together with
him, and no one else was in the house. I asked him: what could I paint next?
Do you have an idea, because I did not know. He said: "Oh, you paint a field
of merit". I said: "You don't mean the big one with all the figures on it!"
He said: "Oh yes, I mean it". So, sometimes he was in Holland, and I asked
him, could you please pass by and look if I'm doing well. He was there. I
remember that there were people from everywhere: from Taiwan, Malaysia,
Germany, Holland etc., about ten people were in my studio looking on the
thangka, and he was sitting there and he was explaining. It was very nice.
He visited my house, and they all looked at my thangka with all those people
around. Sometimes I asked him to come, and he said: no, I don't come, I
don't come. But I put some pressure on it. I said: "I need some support".
"You have support all the time", he said. And when I was painting, a Tibetan
person was standing behind me. A woman saw me in a vision, a clairvoyant.
Clairvoyant means such a person who sees more than normally is seen. It is
clear view. It is more a spiritual experience, when you see extraordinary
things. There are some people who have a gift to see more than normal
people. A special woman saw at a certain moment in a dream that I was
painting a big painting, and that behind me a Tibetan person, so he was
guiding me, a man was observing my thanka painting. She saw that. Behind me
there was a master, a man was guiding me in the backside. That lady was a
friend of a friend of mine. She told her: do you have a friend who is making
a big painting? And then my friend said: yes, I know someone. And she said:
a Tibetan is behind her to guide her. So, sometimes things happen.
Question: Was it when you painted the Refuge Tree?
Answer: Yes. And also the Tibetan master was in my
house, and he had a look at the painting from behind.
Question: How long did it take you?
Answer: That thangka took me three years. I consider
that period as a kind of three-year-retreat.
Question: And how long does it usually take you to
paint a thangka?
Answer: It depends, of course, on how big it is,
normally it takes six weeks. And ...) I paint six hours a day, five days in
a week. So, thirty hours a week. I think one thanka will be six times thirty
hours… About hundred eighty hours. And when it is bigger, I need, of course,
Question: What is now main occupation for you — painting or teaching?
Answer: Both supply each other. So, I like to teach,
and that will be possible till I'm very old. But whether I will be able to
be a thangka-painter for more then several years again — that
is a big question. May be, hands will be trembling, or eyes will be bad.
Until now it goes well.
Question: Do you mainly paint by order or for
yourself, for your friends?
Answer: Mainly I am asked to paint a certain thangka;
but now, with these financial bad times, I also experience the recession.
When I have no request then I paint something that I liked to paint already
earlier. In that way I painted e.g. the Kalachakra and a Vajra Yogini in her
light-palace. And I have recently painted Machig Labdron, which I also
wanted to paint for a long time. It is for the Chod practice.
Question: And such a question: this is the first time
that the retreat on thanka painting is held here, in the retreat center near
Kaluga. How do you like the place, which is called "Buddha's Place of
Answer: Now I like it very much. I even prefer it to
Kunsangar, the first time I liked it very much. But last year there was a
big group of 200 dancers, and there was so much noise. But here I like the
nature very much, the landscape. I have never seen such a lot of flowers. So
beautiful colours. And all these hills. And I think it will be a very nice
center. I heard that a big temple will be built here. And of course, you see
only beginning here, but you see how many people are here, especially at the
weekends, how crowded the bathroom is, and shower, you hear the water all
the time. I am sure there will be big differences in some years.
Question: Which qualities should a thangka painter
Answer: He must be devoted, have Guru devotion,
because without it nothing is possible. He must be humble, not having that
much ego. Certain ego is necessary, let us say, it is not ego, but it is
more feeling kind of self-estimation, that you are able to do it. And as a
teacher one has to be convincing, you have to study yourself, you must know
what you tell, to be able to give people knowledge, to give new things.
Money should not be the main reason to paint. It is nice when you earn some
money with it, but when you feel that there is someone who needs a thanka,
and there is not so much money, you just give it or they pay a little money.
And also one should be loving, because if there is no love and estimation
for someone, than you judge on good or bad work. You know, that even a
drawing or painting is not that good, you see that someone put effort in it;
so you must have love and compassion. And you should diminish your needs
because of others also, because it is really sometimes tiring — to teach day
after day, after day. And there is not so much time for yourself, to do
There was a time when Gega Lama was giving teachings on
what is the function, the duty of a teacher towards his students. And he
explained at least two hours. The main thing he said, that teacher, when he
is still alive, he is and stays the main for his/her students. When a
student will be able to teach the teacher will say: you can start with easy
things and I will tell you when you can overtake my duty. So with that in
mind I was always a little bit… I felt bad about it, I never asked his
permission, although I was asked by my teacher my teacher Kyabje Gelek to
come to America already four times. So I was asked by my own teacher but I
never asked Gega lama so I wanted his permission to teach myself. And I
remember that a friend of mine, she went to Katmandu and she asked me should
she take something for Gega Lama; so I had some presents for him, I wrote a
letter, I let it to translate in Tibetan, and she took it with her, and she
took also a bunch of papers — translation of some chapters of his book,
Gega's book. In Russian — I still have those chapters at home. So she took
it also with her; in that letter I asked Gega Lama: do you think, can I
teach, because I do already and I feel bad about it, that kind of thing. And
my friend-made took some pictures which showed that Gega lama was reading my
letter, and it was seen he was already very ill, and he would not live very
long after it. Then, after some weeks, after two weeks I got a letter, he
sent it from Katmandu, and he said: if you are asked for one person even,
then you have to go. That is how I asked his permission. By him I got a
teacher's name that is painter's name. Tashi Palmo, the one who has an
abundance of capacities. It is very beautiful. And than after two or three
weeks, I think, he died. I was just in time. I would have had a very bad
feeling if I would not have asked in time. But he was so careful, he also
was talking with so much love about his own teacher. And he showed also how
important it is — the lineage, and how precious it is, to have a lineage.
A woman from Holland, she went regularly to Gega's studio,
and there should have been eight or ten people working every day. Lakshmi
was her name. She was very young, she was eighteen, she had very long hair.
She wanted to be a thanka painter, and she went to Katmandu and stayed there
for half a year. All men, the male painters were making jokes on her,
pulling her on her hair, because she was the only woman there. Then she met
Gega's son Tharphen, and he at that time did not want to be a thanka painter
at all, he wanted to go to America and earn quick money. And because Lakshmi
he became a thanka painter. And they are living in Holland, they married,
they have two boys. I met him on the 3rd of July in Amsterdam. They had
there an exhibition. He is a very sweet man. He is e very kind and gentle
man with many capacities, maybe he is around the thirties. So, because of a
Dutch woman he came to Holland and became a thanka painter. He teaches now
in Belgium, in the same place where I got teachings from his father, Gega
Question: How old is he?
Answer: He is a young man, I think, not yet thirty,
Question: May be your children or grandchildren will
take over you?
Answer: Oh no, for sure not. My daughter is not
interested at all; my two sons are also not. Though everyone has a
Buddha-statue and a thangka in the house, but no one will take my stick. And
I suppose no one in Holland. I have no idea about it. I try; I do my best to
find someone. I had a very good student, but she died of cancer some years
ago. And there was also another woman, who was very much interested in
thanka painting, but she also died of cancer. So I think that son of Gega
Lama… At least the lineage will continue.
Question: We hope that it will never be broken. Thank
you very much that you come here to us year after year. May be you want to
make some wish or to give a piece of advice to your Russian students?