Tsherin Sherpa Tibetan spirit

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Tsherin Sherpa - Tibetan Spirit - Rossi & Rossi









Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)

Of Icons and Elvises:

Tibetan Spirit’ in Tsherin Sherpa’s New Art

Katharine P. Burnett

(Fig. 1)

Mu Qi (Chinese, early thirteenth century–after 1279)

Six Persimmons

Ca. 1250

Ink on paper; album leaf mounted as a hanging scroll

38.1 x 36.2 cm (15 x 14 ¼ in)

Daitokuji, Kyoto, Japan

Image reproduced from Akiyama Terukazu, Genshoku Nihon no

bijutsu, Tokyo, 1966–1972). Not on view in the current exhibition


Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.


Many versions of Marcel Duchamp’s

(1887–1968) repurposed urinal sculpture exist, but

the original, now lost, was titled Fountain and signed

‘R. Mutt’. It was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz

(1864–1946) in 1917.


Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.


Chinese artist Liang Kai (active early thirteenth

century) once painted the subject. A hanging scroll

attributed to him is The Sixth Chan Monk Huineng

Tearing Up the Sutras (Private Collection), reproduced

in To So Gen Min Meiga Taikan (Tokyo: Otsuka

Kogeisha, 1929), Vol. 1, Fig. 76.


Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.

As Tsherin Sherpa contemplated making his newest set of

paintings, he found himself asking, “What happens when

a deity from an altar or a monastery is taken out of context?

Is it still sacred or does it become secular? When an object

or even a whole temple is placed in a museum, is one to

engage with it as a sacred object or as a work of art? For

that matter, what really is the difference between the image

of a Buddha in a monastery and one in someone’s garden

with artificial waterfalls? Or on the shelves of Costco?” 1 Just

as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal raised new questions about the

nature of art and expectation in the early twentieth century, 2

and Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Campbell’s Soup cans and

celebrities-in-multiples asked another set of questions for art

later in the century, Sherpa’s new art interrogates the way we

understand objects today as works of art or for devotion.

Mindful of these issues over religion, art and context whilst

feeding on a steady diet of updates from the news, Sherpa

created a series of new works, many of which are illustrated

here, for his first solo show in London. Most are painted in

acrylic with gold or platinum leaf on linen or canvas whilst

some are small works on paper. Each has layers of meaning.


Initially, Tsherin Sherpa’s new works can appear simple,

straightforward and secular, yet several themes run through

them. Few are blatantly obvious. With explication, however,

each can be deciphered.

Though brought up on a strict diet of Tibetan Buddhism,

Sherpa increasingly feels the need to break away from

staid expectations and fossilised formulae for living. A

Buddhist ‘identity’, he points out, can be as restrictive as a

uniform. As his teacher used to explain, “When you understand

the essence of the teaching, [it is as if] you have been

wearing this jacket for a long time, and you have been

soaking it in acid, and then everything is gone”. 3

Just as Huineng (638–713), the sixth patriarch of Chinese

meditational Buddhism, felt free to rip up the sutras once he

became enlightened, 4 Sherpa’s constricting formal intellectual

attire has worn away. More and more, he appreciates the

philosophical aspects of Buddhism, and values the intellectual

freedom that comes with a deep understanding of the

Buddhist dharma. For Sherpa’s art, the result is paintings

that are infused with profound meaning stabilised by

Buddhist principles.

This suggests an approach similar to meditational Buddhism

(Sanskrit: dhyana; Chinese: chan; Japanese: zen), and in

the art world, an intellectual syzygy with the monk Mu Qi

(Chinese, thirteenth century) and his iconic Six Persimmons

(Fig. 1). In Mu Qi’s small monochrome ink painting, six

persimmons in various phases of definition can prompt the

devotee into a meditation on the concepts of being and

nothingness. Similarly, the more Sherpa depicts seemingly

secular topics and forms, the more his devout Buddhist ideals

emerge, and the more his ‘secular’ works can be read as

Buddhist meditations.

Each work in Tibetan Spirit probes aspects of ‘Tibetan-ness’:

from Tibetan Buddhist deities, to the concepts that the deities

represent, to a questioning of what Tibetan spirit is generally.

Likewise, each work also investigates the concept of ‘spirit’,

a term of many meanings. Amongst other things, ‘spirit’ can

indicate a good attitude, a ghost or a deity. At the same

time, Sherpa notes that spirit can also indicate an alcoholic

drink or, for that matter, gasoline or kerosene. 5

To be sure, an essential ‘Tibetan Spirit’ is impossible to

define. Yet, with the recent spate of Tibetan Buddhist

self-immolations hastened by a drenching of the body

with a volatile spirit, Sherpa believes the world’s perception

of what is ‘Tibetan’ is being affected. What is more,

these auto-cremations are challenging traditional Tibetan

notions of right conduct, thoughts, words and deeds in

the face of social upheaval. They are affecting Tibetans’

spirit around the globe.

Much of Sherpa’s new work deals with the topic of

Tibetan self-immolation. As such, he joins a growing list of



contemporary Tibetan artists who are critically responding

to this trend in their art, including Karma Phuntsok, Phuntsok

Tsering, Tenzing Rigdol, Tashi Norbu, Ngawang Jorden,

Tenzin Jigme and Sonam Dolma. 6

Making this set of paintings exhibited in the Rossi & Rossi

show helped Sherpa to work through the fraught issues surrounding

self-immolation. Within the Buddhist and scholarly

communities, some see self-immolation as an enactment of

an event in the Lotus Sutra. 7 Others, however, even those

sympathetic to the Lotus Sutra, consider it to be a loss, as

it prohibits the body from being a final karmic gift to other

sentient beings. (Insects and animals, for example, could

benefit by eating the corpse). 8

Though the Lotus Sutra is a seminal text for Mahayana

Buddhism, it is not central to Tibetan Buddhism. Consequently,

it seems Tibetan Buddhists are reaching out to

forms of Buddhism and social activism practiced outside

of the Tibetan social context. As cultural anthropologists

Carole McGranahan and Ralph Litzinger note, “Tibet has

no history of self-immolation as sacrifice, religious offering,

or political protest”. 9 Nonetheless, rhetoric scholar Tenzin

Mingyur Paldron explains,

It is not a standard of loss or hopelessness that

Tibetans are rallying around, nor are these acts

simply a call to conscience. At stake is a harm

threatening not only Tibetans but also others under

occupation, as well as those seeking to break from

social and political cycles that seem never-ending

in the suffering they reproduce. The story of the

Buddha is a lesson about how one responds as

a witness to suffering, rather than an argument

against or justification of suffering. In order to enact

breaks in certain cycles of suffering, there must

be a willingness to endure some of the pain one

witnesses, rather than mere desire to manage pain

without ever touching it.

She continues,

It is in the cultivation of a particular attitude of possibility,

one based on a readiness to suffer, that acts of virtuous

pain may re-order our sense of how the world might

be perceived. Such acts of self-suffering must not

be oversimplified, for they underscore the harm in

structures of knowledge and power that would rather

ignore than reconsider; contain instead of imagine

the crossings. Beings can be trapped within many

kinds of patterns and walls—political, legal, and

philosophical—all of which may pose obstacles

to deeper understanding. Yet we all know, at least

theoretically, that certain acts are capable of casting

fissures into walls, even of leaping outside them. 10

Along with the concept of self-immolation evoked in Sherpa’s

works is the notion of prayer flags and, by extension,

prayer. As such, these paintings also indicate a corollary

topic: the potential for compassion and mercy. The subtext

of these works, therefore, seems to be to remind us of the

possibility of an end to suffering (Buddhist enlightenment),

and ultimately, the extinction of suffering through cycles of

reincarnation (nirvana).

Along with these ideas, however, are other goals for Sherpa’s

art. He explains,

Firstly, in my work, I [want] to refrain from sounding

like a Buddhist teaching. I feel that much of the

Buddhist view is very relevant in today’s world but

I also understand that so many people’s minds turn

away when I begin using unfamiliar Buddhist

terminology. In a way, humanity already has so

many distinctions or forms that keep us separate

from understanding one another, I try to use skillful

means to make my paintings accessible in [the]

day-to-day life of many types of people, not just

Buddhists or Tibetans but [also] Atheists, Christians,

etc. For example, when the Dalai Lama gives talks,

he usually gives a more public talk that is accessible

to everybody than a more dharma-specific

talk for practitioners. Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed

that some of the younger generation of Tibetans [are]

jaded and bored by traditional Buddhist thangkas

and teachings. I hope to find a way so that they can

relate to my imagery by its being somewhat familiar

yet secular and different at the same time. 11

Sherpa continues to create a new and transformed Tibetan

art steeped in traditional Buddhist philosophy whilst being

responsive to contemporary events and needs.

A brief biography of the artist

Tsherin Sherpa was born in Nepal in 1968 to a family of

Tibetan heritage painters working in the religious traditions

of Tibet (Fig. 2). Well trained by his father, Urgen Dorje

(born 1948), an acclaimed thangka painter, Sherpa knows

the intricacies of Buddhist scripture and iconography. Skilled

in painting traditional thangkas, he creates nontraditional

works that can provide the same meditational function as

his more obviously religious works.

Since 1998, Sherpa has lived and worked outside of San

Francisco, California. He has exhibited his work internationally

to much acclaim in important galleries and museums around

the world. His reputation is strong and growing.

Tsherin Sherpa’s new work

Whilst 8 Spirits (Fig. 3) does not obviously depict

self-immolation, self-immolation assuredly is the topic. The

repeated form of Buddhist spirits, in traditional and new

colours of prayer flags, represents Buddhist prayers and

other concepts.

The renderings of the figures in 8 Spirits is deceptively

simple; the meaning of the painting multilayered. On one

hand, the colourful spirits stand almost cheerful, exposed in

tighty-whities and brightly coloured socks, their mouths open

and almost smiling. They stand in a pose suggestive of John

Travolta’s iconic stance in Saturday Night Fever.

(Fig. 2)

Tsherin Sherpa in his Oakland, California, studio


Photograph by the author


Leigh Sangster, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of

Self-Immolation’, Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.org

/?q=node/526, accessed 20 August 2012.


James A. Benn, Burning for the Buddha:

Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism, Honolulu:

University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, p. 3.


Benn, Burning for the Buddha, p. 4.


Carole McGranahan and Ralph Litzinger, ‘Introduction’,

Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.org/?q=node

/526, accessed 20 August 2012.


Tenzin Mingyur Paldron, ‘Virtue and the Remaking

of Suffering’, Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.

org/?q=node/526, accessed 20 August 2012.


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.



Yet, it is not Travolta that Sherpa is referencing, but Andy

Warhol and his paintings of Elvis Presley (Fig. 4). Sherpa

appreciates the iconic turn of Warhol’s work, noting,

In contemporary culture, Elvis began to have such a

mythology and worship surrounding him that even after

his death people still have sightings as if he were a

spirit. [With] Warhol’s repetition of the image and

degradation through silk-screen mistakes, he begins

to erode that projection of fame.

Sherpa continues,

In a similar manner, Tibetan deities have various

meanings projected upon them. People who have

not been properly initiated might be missing the

essence behind the painting, thereby attaching

themselves to a…simpler [and] incomplete meaning. 12

Sherpa’s goal in repeating a spirit image is to force viewers ‘to

see their own perceptions’, which he hopes will create a

dialogue that comes closer to his intended view for the piece. 13

Warhol’s eight repetitions of Elvis have a particular

resonance for Sherpa. The number 8 is a potent signifier in

(Fig. 3)

8 Spirits


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

127 x 228.6 cm (50 x 90 in)

Tibetan Buddhism. It refers to the Eight Auspicious Symbols,

bkra shis rtags brgyad (the lotus, endless knot, golden fishes,

parasol, victory banner, golden treasure vase, right-spiraling

white conch shell and dharma wheel). 14 As well, it refers to

the Eight Worldly Concerns, Jigten Choe gyed (the desire

for wanting what one wants, for happiness, fame and

praise, and the fear of the opposites of these concepts).

Most powerfully, it refers to Sakyamuni Buddha’s Noble

Eight-fold Path 15 : the path of progressive detachment that

leads to the extinction of the self and escape from the cycle

of rebirth into nirvana.

With this in mind, Sherpa’s explanation of why he has

grouped the spirits together in this painting is poignant:

The figures…stand together in unity since we are

currently seeing more cohesion around the world

of the Tibetan diaspora. The self-immolations

have created a shared awareness throughout

the community who are now keeping that focal

energy alive. 16

Consequently, the fundamental reference of this work is not

a Warholian Elvis but a popular culture of a different order:

the Buddhist faith of Tibetans. The ultimate meaning of the

eight spirits’ pose is one of victory; specifically, the victory

of the god, and the victory over negative emotions, in this

case, self-immolation. This painting is a representation of the

triumph of the Buddhist doctrine, and through it, the release

of the soul from the world of suffering.

Still, the painting has yet another undercurrent running

through it, and that is the theme of commercialism. The record

price brought in a recent sale of Warhol’s Eight Elvises

resonates for Sherpa with the sale of thangkas as souvenirs

or artworks rather than for their meditational and devotional

properties. For Sherpa, this is yet another instance of the

secular world putting a price on the iconic.

Where the theme of self-immolation was not immediately

obvious in 8 Spirits, in 49 Gas Cans, it is clear (Fig. 5).

49 Gas Cans features seven rows of seven multicoloured

gasoline cans. Each can is in a different colour, and each

bears the face of a wrathful protector spirit. The spirits’ faces

are painted in ghostly white outline, enmeshed in the starshaped

thik tse grid measurement. This grid is an element

taken from the traditional Tibetan painting technique for

establishing the correct scale and form of icons.

The separate paper sheets for the cans represent traditional

square or rectangular Tibetan prayer flags. The cans’ repeated

order from yellow, purple, red, green, orange, blue and

pink, and back again in alternating rows, suggests the flags

flapping in the wind, disseminating prayers through space.

As the colours are not strictly traditional, however, they

represent an adjustment to the iconography. Whereas traditional

prayer flags are always in yellow, blue, red, green

and white colours, 17 here, the purple, orange and pink are

new additions to the form. That the white flag is not present

is not a comment on what white can symbolise, but rather a

comment on shifting Tibetan needs. Nonetheless, Sherpa’s

reference is more ideological than specific, and as such

represents the concept of a new and modern prayer flag

responding to new and modern prayers. 18

The new iconography of the prayer flags cum gas cans is

a clear-cut response to Tibetan self-immolation. Moreover,

in this painting, Sherpa’s forty-nine gas cans represent the

forty-nine days of formal Buddhist prayer ceremonies that

are held after a person dies and whilst waiting for the soul

to decide to reincarnate or attain nirvana. 19

The phenomenon of self-immolation is new to Tibetan society.

It was only in 1998 that the first Tibetan auto-cremated. 20

Yet, at the time of writing, already more than fifty Tibetan

monks, nuns and laity throughout the world have

extinguished themselves in flame. As Tibetan Buddhism

scholar Janet Gyatso explains, “Today the target of Tibet’s

recent self-immolations is an outer enemy: an intrusive, repressive,

unsympathetic state” of the People’s Republic of

China. This is in contrast to the traditional form of ascetic

practice, which “targeted an inner enemy: selfish clinging,

vanity, enmity”. 21

(Fig. 4)

Andy Warhol

Eight Elvises


Silk-screen ink, silver paint and spray paint on linen

208 x 358 cm (82 x 141 in)

© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society

(ARS), New York/DACS, London 2012. Reproduction taken from Phaidon

Editors, Steven Bluttal & Dave Hickey, Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, London:

Phaidon Press, 2006, p.197.

Not on view in the current exhibition


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.


Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols

and Motifs, Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.,

1999, pp. 171–87.


Sakyamuni Buddha preached that the Noble

Eight-fold Path is attainable through the Right Views

(i.e., the understanding of suffering and its cause), Right

Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct (moral life), Right

Livelihood (preferably the monastic life), Right Effort

(the maintenance of will power), Right Mindfulness (the

examination and evaluation of one’s progress) and

Right Meditation, where meditation is the final step and

the only means leading ultimately to enlightenment.


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.


Sherpa explains that the five colours of the

traditional prayer flag represent the Five Enlightened

Buddha Families (Nampar nangdze/Nam namg

[Sk: Vairocana]; Mitrugpa [Sk: Akṣhobhya],

Wöpakme [Sk: Amidtābha], Rinchen Jung ne/Rin

jung [Sk: Ratnasaṃbha] and Dön yö drub pa/Dön

drub [Sk: Amoghasiddhi]); the Five Directions and

the Five Elements (earth, space, fire, air and water).

Sherpa, email to the author, 24 August 2012; Beer,

The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs,

pp. 90–93.


Sherpa, email to the author, 24 August 2012.


Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.


Thubten Ngodup, a Tibetan layman living in exile

in India, put himself to the flame in New Delhi in

1998. Edward Wong, ‘Tibetan Who Sets Himself

Afire Dies’, The New York Times, 17 March 2001,

www.nytimes.com /2011/03/18/world/

asia/18tibet.html, accessed 4 September 2012.


Janet Gyatso, quoted in Asia Sentinel, 3 September

2012, http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option

=com_ content&task =view&id=4789&Itemid =189,

accessed 4 September 2012.



(Fig. 5)

49 Gas Cans


Archival ink, gold leaf, gouache and pen on Hahnemuehle fine art paper

Each 20.3 x 17.8 cm (8 x 7 in)


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.

Self-immolation has transformed traditional Tibetan practices. In

changing Tibet’s religious practices, it has radically altered

traditional Tibetan responses to social and political pressures.

In consequence, it has also forced a change in Tibetan

culture. These changes are rocking Tibetans’ spirit around the

world. Sherpa’s 49 Gas Cans addresses these issues.

The theme of self-immolation is also active in DOI 1 and

DOI 2 (Figs. 6 and 7). As in some of Tsherin Sherpa’s other

works, however, in these paintings this theme is not immediately

apparent. It helps to know that ‘DOI’ stands for ‘Death

of Innocence’, the parenthetical titles of the two paintings and

a homonymic play on DUI, ‘driving under the influence’.

In DOI 1 and DOI 2, innocence is represented by toys that

fall around or on a centrally placed grey spirit with a head

resembling a Tibetan deity. The toys suggest the innocence

of childhood and the state of being uninformed, untaught

and inexperienced. The death of this innocence, especially

as indicted by the inclusion of silhouetted figures in DOI 1,

seems to indicate full acknowledgment of world events.

Of these works, Sherpa explains,

I feel that the self-immolation of Tibetans has begun to

disintegrate much of the world’s naive perception that

[Tibetans] are all peaceful enlightened beings who

almost gracefully accept any torments or condition

placed upon them. As [the] Tibetan diaspora evolves,

the world will see various viewpoints emerging that

can’t be easily summarised. 22

Some of the silhouetted figures at the lower edge of DOI 1

are religious, some secular. Anchored in the right corner is

a Thai Buddha seated in meditation and representing

enlightenment. In the left corner, representing the physical

and cosmic extinction attainable through nirvana, is a

representation of Yamantaka, Lord of Death. In between,

are women workers of different realms of existence:

in corporate business (carrying a briefcase) and in sex (a

Playboy Bunny), as well as women engaged in sexual acts.

Along with many other figures, Sherpa has depicted a

leaping child, a photographer shooting his camera and a

soldier firing a gun.

For a painting of a large grey spirit in his underwear, a title

such as Untitled suggests some ambiguity of meaning (Fig. 8).

Ambiguity, however, is far from the case. Rather, it signals

the artist’s conflicted response to problematic world events,

especially those concerning self-immolation. What is the

right response for him? For each of us? How should we

respond to those who are killing themselves? Which is the

correct path: Introspective meditations on being and reality?

Extrospective radical activism? Sympathetic self-immolation?

Untitled is dominated by a grey-skinned figure with the face

and appurtenances of a deity, standing in the victory pose.

The dull grey is easy to read against the colourful elements

in the circular mandorla behind him. The skin is neither the

colour of traditional Tibetan Buddhist deities, nor quite bluntly,

is it either black or white, or only sacred or exclusively

profane. Its indeterminacy underscores the artist’s conflicted

response to the right (Buddhist) conduct for living.

The mudras are new, too, indicating another break with

traditional Tibetan iconography. The figure’s right hand is

raised too high for any abhaya mudra (the mudra signifying

‘do not fear’); its left hand is naturalistically at its waist.

(Figs. 6 and 7)

DOI (Death of Innocence) 1


Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)

DOI (Death of Innocence) 2


Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)



Instead of the tiger skin, symbolising overcoming fear, 23 this

figure wears polka-dot underwear. The polka dots provide

a reference to the spot paintings of commercially successful

British artist Damien Hirst (born 1965). Here, however, they

also signify the contemporary art view about art education, 24

and its goals for enabling a student to earn not just a living

but also fame through commercial success.

What Sherpa has painted is not a deity but rather a spirit

infused with Buddhist precepts; that is, the spirit of a philosophical

Buddhism. With this image, yet another theme for

this new set of paintings emerges. Here, ‘Tibetan Spirit’

refers to a Tibetan’s spirit that remains resiliently Buddhist

whilst under social and cultural pressures to secularise.

In Untitled, the spirit stands in front of a circular mandorla

filled with a myriad of people, cartoon characters, symbols

and signs, some as innocent as a Snoopy dog, others laden

with emotion and freighted with politics. These multitude

images, Sherpa explains, are a miscellany that he found on

the Internet or heard about on radio news whilst he painted.

Just as he listened to the steady patter of conversations

between his father and visitors to his father’s studio when

he was growing up, he now finds he paints best with the

relaxing hum of talk shows, the news and interviews about

current events on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. He explains,

The news stays in the background in my head all

day long. Something is happening in Syria. I can’t

visually see it—I don’t watch TV—but from the words,

I picture it a certain way. It is like a shadow in the

back of my mind. 25

These ‘shadows’ work themselves into Sherpa’s imagination

and out of his paintbrush. In Untitled and other paintings,

they represent the distractions of everyday life, some more

serious than others, but all representative of the craving for

pleasure, power and continued life, the Historical Buddha’s

Second Noble Truth.

Of the colourful ‘shadows’ encircling the grey spirit, some

represent newsworthy events, such as a protester holding

(Fig. 8)

Untitled (2012)


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)

a Syrian flag and an incomplete face of political activist

Aung San Suu Kyi. Others, also representing world news,

are more specific to Tibet. In the top right quadrant, these

include images of the Dalai Lama, a pair of monks physically

locked in debate, activist rapper Tenzing Tsundu and

Jamphel Yeshi, who set himself on fire and ran through the

streets of New Delhi earlier this year.

Camouflaged amongst the disruptive elements of everyday

life, however, is a butterfly. This is Sherpa’s telltale emblem,

symbolic of chaos theory and the potential for even small

movements to effect large-scale change. With the large-scale

spirit standing over them all, we are reminded that the potential

of a (Buddhist) victory over suffering is possible.

Where Untitled features a fully transformed spirit, Blind

Spirits shows deities undergoing secularisation (Fig. 9). As

in some of Sherpa’s earlier paintings, such as Two Spirits

(2010), 26 the figures’ special colour seems to drip off their

bodies, even as their heads (thinking aspect), hands and

feet (acting and doing aspects) retain their full colour and

snake-jewellery. (In the Tibetan tradition, snakes symbolise

overcoming anger.) Without the proper iconography,

(Fig. 9)

Blind Spirits


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)


Sherpa, email to the author, 24 August 2012.


Sherpa, interview with the author, August 4,

2012. Sherpa’s references to Damien Hirst are

discussed more fully in Katharine P. Burnett, ‘Tibetan

Buddhist Art in a Globalized World of Illusion: The

Contemporary Art of Ang Tsherin Sherpa’, ‘ 西 藏

藝 術 在 跨 國 化 清 淨 的 世 界 : 安 才 仁 的 當 代 畫 ’, in

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson and Ying-Ying Lai, Guest Eds.,

Special Issue: ‘Art and Politics in Today’s China and

Taiwan’, Modern Chinese Studies [ 當 代 中 國 研 究 ],

Vol. 18, No. 2, 2011, pp. 17–18.


Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.


Two Spirits is reproduced in Burnett, ‘Tibetan

Buddhist Art in a Globalized World of Illusion’. It is also

currently available at www.tsherinsherpa.com and




Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.

however, these figures can no longer be read as deities.

They are Tibetan spirits.

Troublingly, however, in this painting the addorsed forms

crouch down, as if in defeat. Their faces are anguished,

and the snake bracelets, anklets and armbands appear

more as shackles than jewellery. The spirits appear to have

closed their eyes to the world’s events being played out in

miniaturised silhouette along the lower edge of the composition.

They give the impression of being overwhelmed

and unable to help the tormented.

Looking closely at the silhouetted forms, mixed in with

the sabres and swords, a strafing airplane and armed

soldiers, as well as birds, bats and spiders, are hands in

threatening gestures to others (as if shooting a gun) and

ultimately to themselves (holding a cigarette). The motif of

two fingers at the far left in the shape of a gun was motivated

by the recent murder in Sanford, Florida, of unarmed

seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a vigilante who

felt justified in his actions by Florida law. Sherpa has also

included some children playing, a flying witch inspired by

the Harry Potter books and movies, and a howling wolf

invoking OR7, the lone wild grey wolf that has recently

been ambling northern California and Oregon looking for

a mate. “Overall”, he says, this painting is more generally

“about what we see or hear in the world”. 27

Nonetheless, towards the right is a representation of

Chinnamastā, the deity who cuts off her own head to drink

her blood. She is recognised here by a figure holding a

head whilst blood spurts out of her neck. The wrathful form

of a benevolent deity, Chinnamastā symbolises cutting off

one’s ego and attachment to oneself. Towards the left is a

lithe dancer with one leg raised, similar in form but not exactly

like iconographic representations of Shiva as Nataraja, the

Hindu Lord of the Dance, who dances this exhausted world

out of existence and ushers in the next vital period of hope.

Though it is tempting to read cynicism and despair into this

painting, cynicism and despair are far from the point. Sherpa

is simply aware that life is complex and transformation



is inevitable, whether in (Tibetan) society, in (Tibetan) art or

in art made for (Tibetan) Buddhist purposes. “If one studies

traditional Tibetan Buddhist artworks”, he points out, “transformations

occur there too, with the gradual inclusion over

time of landscape and other elements into what first were

paintings exclusively of the deities”. If anything, Sherpa is

cynical that change hasn’t happened more quickly.

He explains,

Because sometimes when we look at the Buddha

image, we are too attached to the images. We are

not able to bring the essence of the image into our

day-to-day life….‘Compassion’ has become a

symbol like Batman or Guanyin. Static. The essence

has to flow in our day-to-day lives so we can function

[compassionately]…. I am trying to envision that

flowing in our day-to-day secular life. 28

grew up in Nepal or America and have never set

foot in Tibet? The cultural influences differing amongst

the diaspora can make different Tibetans seem

almost foreign to each other.

For that matter, he continues,

[I]f a sacred object is removed from its natural or

original environment, does it still remain the sacred

object or will it begin to form a new identity? The two

paintings actually attempt to explore this issue. 29

Sherpa developed the Protectors’ forms from wrathful deities.

For Blue Protector, it was a blue-bodied Vajrapani, the

Thunderbolt Bearer, symbol of the Buddha’s power. For Red

Protector, it was Vajrakilaya (Vajrakila) bearing a phurba (a

triangular dagger-spike symbolic of meditation) and trampling

a white-headed winged figure of ignorance.

(Fig. 10)

Blue Protector


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)

(Fig. 11)

Red Protector


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)

Perhaps, therefore, we should reconsider the ultimate meaning

(if there is one) of Blind Spirits. Are these powerful spirits

really impotent to help, or are they just temporarily discouraged

by the suffering of the world? As in Untitled, the even

more apparent butterfly motif in Blind Spirits signifies the

possibility for change, transformation and hope.

Whilst Sherpa’s other new works respond to the theme of

self-immolation, Blue Protector and Red Protector (Figs. 10

and 11) more closely consider issues of an evolving identity

in the Tibetan diaspora.

Sherpa explains,

The deity used in traditional thangkas uses a rigid

grid system to delineate how the body is formed.

Without this proper formation, it is not considered

to have attributes to be used in normal means of

practice. Using this deity creation as a metaphor, the

Tibetan diaspora is having to come to terms [with]

its various identities without having a ground yet.

Tibetans have become disconnected from where they

should be. Is one considered a proper Tibetan if they

Whilst these paintings explore issues of an evolving Tibetan

identity in the Tibetan diaspora, their explicit themes are

protection and, by extension, asylum, shelter and refuge.

Vajrakilaya, a Father-Mother deity, is an especially potent

symbol of this idea. As art historian Marylin Rhie and

religion scholar Robert Thurman explain of Vajrakilaya forms


These archetypes provide ideal templates for the subjectivity

of the practitioner who must mobilize the contemplative

mind and body to brave the descent into

the underworld of terror and death. Only from such

a subjectivity does one dare to dissolve the stable,

coarse body-mind into the subtle body mind of lunar

luminance, solar radiance, and pitchdark imminence,

the nearest to absolute zero and therefore

the most fertile and powerful and subtle mind states

standing at the threshold of the transparent, predawn

illumination of clear light. The development of such

fierce archetypes for navigating the fearful realms of

the unconscious and confronting the most dangerous

aspects of reality is one of the supreme achievements of

Tibetan depth psychology and Tibetan art. 30

In his Protector works, Sherpa transforms iconographically

correct renditions of Buddhist deities into whorls of paint,

third eyes in polychrome, as it were, and deities into spirits.

The vertiginous compositions calm through a visual

circumambulation of the spirits’ forms. Close inspection

reveals altered states of the heads, hands, jewellery,

and in the case of the Blue Protector, a fleshy belly and

orange flame.

In Tsherin Sherpa’s new work, the spirits index the power of

all wrathful deities to provide sanctuary for the tormented

as they brave descent into underworlds of terror and death.

The new works alert us to the fact that his constricting

intellectual formal attire has worn away—or, more aptly,

perhaps, just as for the pigments colouring the spirits in his

new works, his intellectual, cultural and artistic strictures

have dripped off. The social responsibilities are still great,

to be sure, but Sherpa is free.

Katharine P. Burnett is Director of the East Asian Studies Program and Associate

Professor of Chinese Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at the

University of California, Davis. She researches and publishes on diverse topics of

social and cultural issues, art theory and criticism, and the history of collecting and

display in China and the Asian diaspora from the sixteenth century through the



Sherpa, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.


Sherpa, email to the author, 5 September 2012.


Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman,

Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom

and Compassion, New York: Tibet House New

York, in association with The Shelley and Donald

Rubin Foundation, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Distributors,

1999, p. 268.



Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)


previous pages:

DOI (Death of Innocence) 1 (detail)


Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)


DOI (Death of Innocence) 1


Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)


DOI (Death of Innocence) 2


Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)


previous pages:

8 Spirits


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

127 x 228.6 cm (50 x 90 in)


Lost Spirit


Gold leaf, acrylic, gouache and ink on paper

61 x 45.7 cm (24 x 18 in)


Spirit (Dreamer)


Gold leaf, acrylic, gouache and ink on paper

55.9 x 40.7 cm (22 x 16 in)


Untitled (2012)


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)


previous pages:

Untitled (2012) (detail)


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)


Blind Spirits


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)


Blue Protector


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)


Red Protector


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)

following pages:

Red Protector (detail)


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)

49 Gas Cans


Archival ink, gold leaf, gouache and pen on Hahnemuehle fine art paper

Each 20.3 x 17.8 cm (8 x 7 in)




Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)

Tsherin Sherpa was born in 1968 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

He lives and works in Oakland, California, USA.



Buddhist Philosophy under the tutelage of various Buddhist

Masters, Nepal


Computer Science and Mandarin, Taipei, Taiwan


Traditional Tibetan thangka painting apprenticeship with his

father, Master Urgen Dorje Sherpa


Tibetan Thangka, The Miyares Gallery, Sonoma Academy,

Santa Rosa, USA


Tibetan Thangka Painting, Oriental Museum, Durham

University, Durham, UK


Yamantaka, Fort Mason, San Francisco, USA


Mandala of Compassion, Headlands Center for the Arts,

Sausalito, USA

Amitayus, Sonoma Museum of Visual Arts, Santa Rosa, USA

Selected Exhibitions


Tibetan Spirit, Rossi & Rossi, London, UK

Victory!, Rossi & Rossi, London, UK


Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, Hood

Museum of Art, Hanover, USA

Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, The Crow

Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, USA

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?,

Rossi & Rossi, London, UK

Beyond the Mandala–Contemporary Art from Tibet, Volte

Gallery, Mumbai, India, in collaboration with Rossi & Rossi,

London, UK

Art Stage Singapore, Rossi & Rossi, Singapore


Scorching Sun of Tibet, Songzhuang Art Center, Beijing,


Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, Rubin

Museum of Art, New York, USA

Buddha in the Hood, Red Mill Gallery, Johnson, USA


Deity Thangka Paintings, Alta Galleria, Berkeley, USA


Sacred Images, Alta Galleria, Berkeley, USA

Contemporary Thangka, Smith Andersen Editions, Palo

Alto, USA

Culture-Mutt, The Green Lantern Gallery, Chicago, USA


Fellowships & Residences


Rubin Museum of Art: Himalayan Fellowship, Vermont Studio

Center, Johnson, USA


Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA


Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA


Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA


Sonoma Museum of Visual Art, Santa Rosa, USA

Sketch 2, 2012, Pencil on paper, 20.4 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in)

First published to accompany the exhibition:





12 OCTober–29 November 2012

Coordination: Martin Clist

Editing: Eti Bonn-Muller

Photography: Unless specified all photography by Matt Pia, except for pp. 27, 28,

42–43 & 47, Tsherin Sherpa

Design: Ruth Höflich

© Rossi & Rossi Ltd. 2012

Text copyright © the author. Unless indicated otherwise, all images courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be transmitted in any form or by any

means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any storage or retrieval

system, without prior permission from the copyright holders and publishers

ISBN 978 1 906576 32 5

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library



16 Clifford Street

London W1S 3RG

t +44 20 7734 6487

f +44 20 7734 8051



Blind Spirits (detail)


Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)



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