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Precious Teachers

Urgyen House Exhibition - Urgyen House, Adhisthana 

Image: ‘Precious Teachers’ exhibition shot, 2021, Urgyen House©
Precious Teachers’ is the first exhibition at newly opened Urgyen House, set in the grounds of Adhisthana in Ledbury. The house has been established to store, catalogue and eventually display a collection of precious items, which chart the extraordinary personal history of Buddhist Triratna’s founder Sangharakshita. He passed away in 2018, and the conservation project will have a significant role to play in the building of a strong and inspired sangha community, offering them unique access to his legacy, to inpsire, educate, enlighten, enrich and delight spiritual practice. The space itself comprises of two small buildings adjoining the main house and holds five rooms. Sangharakshita’s living room and bedroom have been left untouched. The lobby is now a reading space, and the room that was once Paramartha’s bedroom (who looked after Sangharakshita), is now a shrine room. The former dining room has become an exhibition room which is where the first exhibition ‘Precious Teachers’ is set. 

I have two motivations for responding to this show... I have recently restarted my art practice after a 5 year break, and one of the biggest changes in that time has been becoming a Buddhist. It has totally changed my life. I am now devoted to both practices and they merge at points, this article is an attempt to express a fraction of this of merging of worlds. Previously, I have only written art reviews, an enjoyable, useful but not ground-breaking exercise. This is the first time that I have chosen to write a review on a spiritual exhibition. I have been blessed with the priviledge of living with the arts in my life from the age of 15. I was formally introduced to art galleries and museums when I was 18, and I have since witnessed 100’s of shows and 1000’s of objects. In my earlier art years, I used to experience visceral reactions to art, which has faded in intensity, but I experienced a significantly deeper emotional resonance to the objects in the ‘Precious Teachers’ exhibition. I was moved to tears and later curious as to how and why these objects moved me so deeply. What are these deepening levels of resonance?

As both practices hopefully deepen over the decades, I have the ambition of sharing insight from both worlds with the two communities, in the hope of making them more accessible to each other. To the art world, I want to share my growing understanding of Buddhist art, in the hope that you might engage with Buddhism/its artefacts in a more meaningful way. To the sangha, I want to share my growing understanding and love for the arts, to encourage creative engagement in spiritual practice, as I believe that for some, it has the potential to become a path for exploring wisdom and metta. (I don’t quite know what I mean here yet, but I feel both are fundamentally connected). Some terminology and site references are hyperlinked for those interested.
In this first piece, I have selected 3 objects from the ‘Precious Teachers’ exhibition to explore but not fully answer the above.

Bonding with our precious teacher Bhante (Sangharakshita)

I completed the Sheffield Buddhist Centre introduction course in 2017, Sangharakshita passed away in 2018. I knew he was important, but I hadn’t yet built up enough practice to revere him in a meaningful way. I have since changed alot, experienced deep profound insights and emotions, and tasted enough tiny glimpses of freedom to be deeply grateful for his efforts. Helping out at the centre, I realise how much work goes into one evening of hosting studies, yet in his lifetime, he set up a whole new Buddhist order. An order which fills me with a wisdom and love that I couldn’t imagine possible, transforming me faster than anything that I have experienced before. My gratitude goes beyond words. However, I will never meet him, or hear one of his talks in person, never get the chance to make him a card....How can I build a meaningful connection with him moving forward? Adhisthana (the retreat centre where this house and exhibition reside) is becoming a space where I find beautiful ways of building that connection. During my visit at Urgyen House, I discovered that I had much in common with him!

Image: Sangharakshita’s living room with wooden art studio desk in the corner, 2021 Urgyen House
‘Mr Fish Painting’
In recorded talks, I often hear Sangharakshita’s deep appreciation for the arts, but I have never seen evidence of it in person. When I went into the living room, (which has been left untouched from the day he passed), I could feel that he really does believe in the arts. The living room feels much like the houses of my creative friends...usually modest but carefully or delibrately selected.. like them, he also had beautiful little collections of curiousities. He had a small studio art desk in the top left hand corner of the room, which had his drawings and paintings on. I also noticed that we have alot of the same books, and that he also collected big rocks and minerals (an article for another day). 

‘Mr Fish Painting’ is hung on a wall outside the bedroom near the living room. “A few years prior to his death, Sangharakshita asked for the folders of oil pastel paintings that he had produced in the early 1970s to be brought out so he could go through them and select the best for framing.” (Urgyen House website). I adore the texture and the colour of this drawing, because oil pastels were one of the first materials that I fell in love with in secondary school where this all started. The blending of greens in the background, the way the colours blend in the fish and shell, that texture is really nostalgic for me. I worked predominately in oil pastels and acrylic paints at the time, which also allows for this kind of blending. Both materials favour bright artifical colours... which I loved as teenager! (Still do). Being immersed in making these kinds of marks were the very first meaningful building blocks for my visual practice. Drawing in that way became so fulfilling and meaningful to me that at the age of 15 I decided to commit my life to it, applying for art college to solely focus on fine art. It gave me deep pleasure to know that he simply enjoyed making similar marks and using similar colours. When he looked back at drawings from 40 years ago, he chose this one, is it because of the content of it? the story it tells? or because he remembers really enjoying making it? I will never know.... but that mystery is some of the beauty of taking in other people’s work. 

Another window of deeper beauty for me was that in his final years, when he knew that he would pass soon, he saw the importance of looking through the work that he had made 40 years ago. That was a priority for him. That alone proves to me that he really does understand the deep value of the creative life. He valued his own creative expression deeply which is beautiful. By making it a priority I know that he really understood why I live how I live, and why that matters. This is important to me because I know that as I continue my Buddhist practice, I will listen to and read alot of his teachings. I find practice really challenging at points, one example, I hear things I don’t want to know, and what I think I do know is deluded, there is nowhere to hide, so I have to start reaching beyond myself. If I have a connection/ faith in him, it builds a kind of trust, which without makes pushing impossible. Bonding on creatives terms is deeply sacred to me. 

Image: Mr Fish Painting, drawn by Sangharakshita in 1970’s, Urgyen House©

Image: Mañjughoṣa thangka, gifted to Sangharakshita (1957) by Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Precious Teachers exhibition, 2021, Urgyen House©
Mañjughoṣa thangka gifted by precious teacher Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche.

In Buddhist practice, I get introduced to different bodhisattva‘s who to my understanding, embody different qualities of the enlightened mind. There are some bodhisattva‘s which I have been introduced to, and have felt them in some sense. For example...sometimes when on retreat, I might listen to wisdom which helps me dwell in their realm, and then we might perform a puja which is a ritual in dedication to them and the Buddha. Not always, but sometimes, I tune into/access them and I feel like they run through me somehow and I enter a higher state of consciousness through their eyes. It is hard to explain.
I have not studied or dwelled in bodhisattva Mañjughoṣa‘s realm, when I looked at the thangka I had and still have no idea who they are, or what they embody, so when I took this thangka in, I understand that I digested it in quite a superficial way compared to how an accustomed practioner might. I also have a very minimal knowledge and experience in studying thangkas, something I’d love to explore more in the future. 

Despite this, I still felt deeply moved by it. It was painted for Sangharakshita and gifted by Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who also gave Sangharakshita the Mañjughoṣa intitation. What I found beautiful about this was that Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche openly admitted that the thangka was “not so well executed as he could have wished....the work was clumsily if painstakingly done......though it was the work of the best artist he had been able to find in Gangtok”. The thangka was none-the-less “painted in accordance with his directions.....he proceeded to explain, through the initiations he had given me he had transmitted to me the essence of the teachings of the great masters who were depicted in it. I was now their spiritual heir and successor.... Smiling, he then pointed to the yellow-robed figures in their caves, one meditating and one teaching. Both were me.” (Precious Teachers in The Complete Works of Sangharakshita vol. 22, pp.406–7)

This object and story represented much of the whole exhibition which was for me the realisation of a fragment of what a reality looked like when the spiritual life and its values take precedent over all other things and how deeply beautiful that is. A reality of choosing both sprititual and creative lifestyles can result in a reduction in financial and materialistic wealth. In my life, this has certainly been the case. My choice to not work full time, or not recieve a full time salary for now means financial and resource limitations and requires compromises. However in turn, the types of resources that I have now made space to acquire are now not as physically tangible but enrich me in unexplainably beautiful ways. For example, simply having the time to write this article is beautifully more fulfilling compared to copywriting content about selling things I don’t really care about. When Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche had a vision for what he wanted to create, he perhaps accepted the options that he had around him, and created the best that he could and had confidence that was enough. He understood where the importance lied and where to compromise. It would be nice for all of us to use the finest artists, the most luxurious materials, Sangarakshita, and all of us are worthy of these... but when offering gifts from the higher realms, I imagine there is a real art in knowing what is important and how to express it.  I know that I can read this and take it in intellectually, but this exhibition demonstrated the infinite possiblity of the spiritual gifts that you could gift to others. Adding Sangarakshita into the thangka as a symbol is unbelieveably moving. A true tear jerker.

In smaller ways, this kind of wisdom of knowing where the importance lies, is gifted to me by the Triratna sangha. It has passed through Sangharakshita, through our now ordained members and sangha, who now pour it into me. It is hard to explain how that sensitivity develops inside me but it’s truly beautiful. Everyone has infinite amounts of ways of expressing it to everyone else too. It’s mesmerising watching it unfold. I bought the postcard of this thangka, which is now hung above my main home shrine to remind of what I have written above, for when I practice generosity which is one of the Buddhist precepts. 

Image: Close up of Mañjughoṣa thangka, the saffron-coloured Mañjughoṣa, Precious Teachers exhibition, 2021, Urgyen House© Image: Close up of Mañjughoṣa thangka, Sangharakshita meditating in the caves, Precious Teachers exhibition, 2021, Urgyen House©
Sheathed Khampa knife with bone handle gifted by precious teacher Dilgo Khyenste Rinpoche

I saw this knife in the glass cabinet, read the below and cried. 
“I remember that meeting … because Dilgo Khyentse and his wife, especially his wife, wanted to give me something as a little parting present, but they had nothing to give, they were so poor at that time. But his wife searched around and she found a little Khampa knife, about so long, with a bone handle and in a little sheath with a bit of silver mounting, and she gave me that with ‘Oh we're very sorry, we'd like to give you something, but this is all we're able to give, please accept it.....So that was their parting present.” (‘Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’, a talk given by Sangharakshita in 1991)
In an exhibition which was predominantely about male history.. this wife shone out to me like a beaming star.
I live in such material wealth now, even having had made a decision for a more frugal life. In our home full of stuff, what is actually meaningful enough to give away as a gift? I think my practice in sculpture makes me aware of the objects around me in my life and do regularly have clear outs. I am privileged to have alot of beautiful and memorable things around me but they are not valued by their financial worth. But I am definitely sentimentally attached to them. Would I give away my most precious items? Also if my continued Buddhist practice meant living in more poverty than I do now, how far would I be prepared to strip it back? Coming from a working class background and having paid for and saved for everything I have in my adult life, I am definitely precious about what I now have. Am I precious about the rights things? This was such a rich and triggering object for me. It created a new vision of selflesness for me that I am nowhere near. Absolutely beautiful. 

Image: Sheathed Khampa knife with bone handle, gifted to Sangharakshita by Dilgo Khyenste Rinpoche, Precious Teachers exhibition, 2021, Urgyen House©

I conclude by saying that I am very aware that due to me being an early practioner, I was limited in being able to take in the full depth and beauty of the exhibition. I can’t imagine how this show would have digested after 50 years of practice. Since I saw the exhibition, I have already deepened my understanding in other areas and relooked at the show on the website, where other objects now have more significance for me. And I imagine that this show would be different everytime I went into it, which does happen with art, but a lot more life needs to happen for art pieces to change as drastically for me. Decades need to pass. Perhaps this is because I am new to Buddhism and there is so much to learn and to sink in. Also I think Buddhism works with the whole of my being, whereas art, although delves much deeper than everyday life, it does seem to operate on a more shallow level of reality, generally speaking. I am not sure I am right here, just... thinking out loud. My biggest take away from it was this painted picture in my imagination of what reality looks like in reality where the spiritual life takes precedence. What a vision!

You can experience some of the exhibition online by clicking here


*When I first started writing this article, upon writing the first paragraph I recieved a phone call from Site Gallery with news that I had been awared a 2 year art residency. I have never applied for anything like it, recollecting the moment sometimes brings me to tears as I do not believe it to be a coinicidence. As a result, I didn’t sit down to rewrite the article until 2 months later. At the second time of writing, upon fleshing out the conclusion, I looked out of my studio window to witness massive red moon rising over the houses. The process of writing this first article has been full of......magic and good fortune. 
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