Ngakma Pema Zangmo

Ngakma Pema Zangmo

sNgags ma pad ma bZang mo

…the yidams boldly dance from the canvas with naked dignity.

I always loved painting and drawing since I first remember being alive. Art is like my skin – it always seems to be there. When I was about four or five years old people used to ask me: What do you want to be when you grow up? I used to reply: An artist. One lady frightened me by saying: Artists are all mad. I did not understand what she meant by ‘madness’, but it seemed bad. From then on I told them all that I would become a nun – and that seemed to make them happy. It is strange to think that—apart from not being celibate—I seem to have combined these two aspirations. I am now an ordained ngakma and a thangka painter. But the journey to this point has not been simple.

In the meanwhile I painted ladies with flowing orange hair and huge patterned skirts (I always painted the same subject). One day all the children in the class decided to copy me. The teacher liked it, and put everyone’s paintings up on the wall. The walls were full of ladies with orange hair. This was a great moment for me as all my other attempts at school were miserable and difficult. When I mentioned the orange-haired ladies to Ngak’chang Rinpoche he said: That sounds like dakinis with flaming wrathful wisdom hair.

I continued to excel in art classes throughout my life. Practical subjects like sewing and cooking always came naturally for me. Academic achievements, however, were another matter – but as Ngak’chang Rinpoche pointed out: Intellect is valuable but not indispensable. Only devotion is indispensable.

In comparison with school work, I found boys to be more interesting and developed a rich love life. One of my boyfriends took me to see a man who described himself as a ‘Buddha’. I was very young and he seemed interesting and sexually alive in comparison to what I knew of religion up until then. In his house I saw many images from the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and I was excited to learn how to paint these strange beings. ‘The Buddha’, however, said he already had a thangka painter and that such things were not for girls. He did let me embroider various symbols. It seemed that sewing was suitable for girls. (I was extremely happy to discover later that Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen had a completely different view.) Anyhow – I had a little paint box with water colour paints, and used to practise painting images—without thought—in just a few strokes (I could get away with this as it was not serious, and the things I painted were sometimes quite strange). Life with ‘the Buddha’ turned out not to be what it had seemed at first. He was not a Buddha after all – just a strange neurotic person, who in most ways was not much different from any body else. I decided to part company with him.

I started to copy images from books by myself and try to paint them. I had no idea what I was doing, but I seemed to need to paint. I painted in mad colours. I tried a day retreat to paint Ma-gÇig Labdrön. The board I used was textured (due to the bad advice of a person in the art shop) and in my retreat I struggled to draw on bumpy board. The result was a mess – but I was in retreat so I could not go out to get paper. I would not give in to the bumpy board, so I drew Ma-gÇig Labdrön in spite of the obstacles.

I craved a teacher who would help me. My dear husband Ngakpa ’ö-Nyi Dorje came home one day with a book written by Ngak’chang Rinpoche. We both liked it very much. Soon after, we saw a BBC television documentary about Buddhism in Wales. It was called ‘The Lotus and the Leek’ and starred Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo. I thought to myself: This is great. And we went to attend teachings by Ngak’chang Rinpoche in Cardiff.

Like water to a flower such was this meeting to my life. My training as a thangka painter had finally begun. We became apprentices. Several years later Ngak’chang Rinpoche was at a transitional point and needed a home – so we invited him to live with us. He accepted. Ngak’chang Rinpoche came to our home and began to teach me, and everything seemed to fall into place. I worked every day at my drawing and painting. Ngak’chang Rinpoche sat beside me writing letters in the small dark room at the back of our house. Sometimes I would come to my work in the morning to find my drawing changed. Whilst ’ö-Nyi Dorje and myself were engaged in early morning practice Rinpoche had been working on it. 

Rinpoche gave me a lot of time and was very kind to me, instructing me in every detail of my work. At first I struggled with my artistic need to ‘do it my way’. It seems quite embarrassing when I think of it now. I had thought early on that I could just paint as I pleased without external discipline. Fantastic images filled my mind, but I realised that without a reason to paint them, and no place for them to go, there would be no point – just like the endless thoughts that fill the mind and pass by. It took me a while to let go and relax with my thangka painting – but Ngak’chang Rinpoche had great patience with me. I have a great desire to paint – and I find there is no point without my Lamas. My connection is such that I cannot paint without them.

These days when I have difficulties with painting, I remember to paint from my heart and to paint without concept. I remember the face of my Lamas Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, and the love I feel for them. Thangka painting is my main practice, and it is one which I take into solitary retreat.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche has always recommended that I learn as much as I can with regard to thangka painting – including learning from Tibetan painters expert in the different styles. So it was lucky for me that one day there was a knock at the door – a thangka painter called Ögyen had come to find me. This was quite unusual as there are not exactly many Tibetan thangka painters in north Wales, but it enabled me to follow Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s advice. Ögyen had trained for 12 years in McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Then he had married a young woman whose family lived on Anglesey and so he lived quite close to us for a while. He taught me a great deal concerning painting technique and the mixing of paints.

I met with Ögyen again whilst in McLeod Ganj. I went there on Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s advice at the end of an apprentice pilgrimage to Ladakh. In McLeod Ganj I studied with a thangka painter named Tashi, who taught me how to gesso a canvas and how to mix gold paint. It was there that I painted the lineage history thangka of ’a-Shul Pema Legden and Aro Lingma. Ögyen showed me how to grind paints from stone and mix them with rabbit skin glue. The paint was ground in beautiful little earthenware pots, and I had to combine the paint and glue together in the pot with my fingers. The paint had already been ground to a powder but the inside of the pot was quite rough, and my fingers became quite sore. It seemed it was ‘the thangka painter pride’ to be able to grind paint with the fingers (their fingers get tough after a few years). I met various thangka painters whilst in McLeod Ganj. I visited different schools and saw how they worked.

Although I appreciate the traditional style of Tibetan thangka painting, I have always felt disappointed that the vivid sexuality of the yidam images has been obscured. This is why it was important for me to work with Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. The yidam images from the Aro gTér are not constrained by Puritanism or celibate religiosity. As Khandro Déchen presents them, the yidams boldly dance from the canvas with naked dignity. Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen’s approach to thangka painting is to be true to Vajrayana – to depict the yidams as luminous light bodies, rather than using the more subdued colours of the Eastern style. They point out that they have no desire to be untraditional – but to be traditional with regard to Vajrayana may sometimes mean not painting in a Tibetan style.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche said: 
I once asked Khordong gTérchen Tulku Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche whether the breasts of the dakinis were supposed to be drawn as circles for symbolic reasons or whether they could be more accurately represented. Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche laughed and told me that they were only painted as circles because monks did not know what breasts looked like – and that I should feel free to use the influence of my knowledge of anatomy and my experience with life drawing at art college. I also asked him about the colours of the yidams and Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche agreed that they should be painted in the pure colours of the five elements.

I look back to that time in our small dark room like a dream. There is both much to say and nothing at all. We had many lovely moments then and now they continue. We have an annual thangka painting retreat where we all live together,, and the thangka painters also bring their work on the apprentice retreats.


other thangkas by Ngakma Pema Zangmo:
Dorje Tröllö
Yeshé Tsogyel
Ögyen Dzambhala
Aro Yeshé