While an art student in Oakland, California, in the 1970s, I stumbled upon the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, as brought to this country by the venerable teacher, Tarthang Tulku, Rinpoche. Thus began a lifelong journey that has lead to learning about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and psychology and Tibetan sacred art. Having trained in the classical disciplines of western art, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, had not really prepared me for encountering the glorious heaven realms portrayed in Tibetan art. The hell realms shown in the paintings were also something that I could not easily fathom.

However, with sustained effort and practice, the worlds portrayed in the Tibetan paintings began to make sense and spoke to me of ideals that could actually be glimpsed through meditation experiences. The way that the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether came together to form lovely landscapes seemed to reflect an inner state of mind where beauty can naturally emerge through calmness and clarity. The peaceful form of the Buddha, sitting silently in meditation, mirrored the experience of finding a deep inner quiet through my own meditation

In the Tibetan tradition, one generally spends five years just learning to draw the images before one is allowed to paint. This was quite frustrating to someone who loves color, but I did persevere with drawing after drawing for a full five years. My first painting project was to color a small series of my drawings with water color paints. After that, my first real painting assignment was to create eight large paintings, approximately four feet tall by six feet wide, depicting images of the Buddha’s life. It felt like being thrown into the deep end of the pool in order to learn how to swim!

As I studied more about the Buddhist understanding of the nature of our minds, practiced meditation and continued to draw and paint many Buddhas and other masters of the Buddhist lineages, it all began to make more sense. By touching a deep, inner calm within ourselves, we can find a place of great beauty and grace that becomes our second nature to express. The words we use and the images that we create, come from a place of compassionate action, wishing to do something of value to help alleviate the suffering that is so pervasive in our world. I feel very fortunate to have stumbled upon these profound teachings and to have had the chance to work with them for many years!

Rosalyn White is the co-director of Ratna Ling and enjoys sharing her knowledge of meditation and Tibetan art through classes and retreats at the center.