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A Rare and Important Tibetan Portrait commissioned for Taklung Monastery from The Collection of Mimi Lipton / TANGKA REPRÉSENTANT LE PORTRAIT DU TROISIÈME ABBÉ DU MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, SANGYE YARON (PRAJNAGURU) TIBET CENTRAL, COMMANDÉ POUR LE MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, VERS 1236-1272

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TANGKA REPRÉSENTANT LE PORTRAIT DU TROISIÈME ABBÉ DU MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, SANGYE YARON (PRAJNAGURU)
TIBET CENTRAL, COMMANDÉ POUR LE MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, VERS 1236-1272
4 October 2022, 13:45 CEST
Paris

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TANGKA REPRÉSENTANT LE PORTRAIT DU TROISIÈME ABBÉ DU MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, SANGYE YARON (PRAJNAGURU)

TIBET CENTRAL, COMMANDÉ POUR LE MONASTÈRE DE TAKLUNG, VERS 1236-1272
Distemper on cloth; recto with a Tibetan inscription in gold below the throne:
bla ma rin po che dpon po dpal gyi thugs dam lags//;
"This is the thugs dam ['the meditative commitment' or 'high aspiration'] of the Honorable Onpo Lama Rinpoche.

Verso with inscribed Tibetan mantras in black ink and an invocation:
ōṃ a na mo rad na ghu ru prad jña ghu ru hūṃ//

Verso also with a Tibetan inscription in gold:
mtshungs med bla ma dam pa pradznya 'ghu ru dang// bdag 'ghir ti shri ra smri bha tra 'bral med ci gsung bka' bsgrub cing/ rangs sems 'khrul pa dag pa dang// 'gro 'ba'i 'dren pa nus par shog//;
"May I, Kirtiśrī Rashmibhadra, being inseparable from the incomparable holy lama Prajñāguru, achieve whatever he commands, and may I have the power to purify the bewilderment of my own mind and act as a guide for living beings."

Himalayan Art Resources item no. 4552
Image: 82 x 63 cm (32 1/4 x 24 7/8 in.)

Footnotes

A PORTRAIT THANGKA OF THE THIRD ABBOT OF TAKLUNG MONASTERY, SANGYE YARJON (PRAJNAGURU)
CENTRAL TIBET, COMMISSIONED FOR TAKLUNG MONASTERY, CIRCA 1236-1272

達隆寺第三任堪布桑傑雅俊(般若上師)肖像唐卡
藏中 達隆寺施造 約1236-1272年

Published:
Jane Casey Singer and Phillip Denwood, Tibetan Art: Toward a Definition of Style, London, 1997, p. 63, no. 45.
Jane Casey, Taklung Painting: A Study in Chronology, Serinda Publications, forthcoming 2023.

Provenance:
Mimi Lipton, acquired 1985

This rare and early Tibetan painting depicting Sangye Yarjon surrounded by 108 further manifestations is to-date the only known Taklung portrait with this arrangement at this larger scale. The composition echoes the account of Buddha Shakyamuni's miraculous ability to multiply himself, conveying omnipresence, something only an enlightened being that has progressed fully to the point of Buddhahood can do. Elsewhere in the painting, through a hand gesture or by being seated on a lotus throne, Sangye Yarjon's image is again conflated with that of the historical Buddha. Meanwhile, fine textiles worn for his monastic robes and draped over the front of his throne draw association with courtly attire and motifs of Central and East Asian ruling classes. As the third abbot of Taklung monastery, Sangye Yarjon is represented as both a spiritual and worldly potentate.

Sangye Yarjon's throne is dressed with a piece of textile, likely representing silk or very fine cotton, draped over the center of the rectangular plinth. Like many sumptuous throne covers featured in Taklung portraits, this one has multi-colored floral patterning, ruffled borders, and projecting corners. However, more rarely, it also depicts an animal or mythological creature. Other examples, for instance, feature a pair of snow lions below a portrait of Shangton Choki Lama (Denwood & Casey Singer, Tibetan Art , 1997, p. 64, no. 46), or peacocks below Taklung Tangpa Chenpo (Pritzker Collection; HAR 58362). In this portrait of Sangye Yarjon, the center cloth bears a coiled green aquatic dragon, or panlong, resembling an ancient motif in Chinese mythology and art, and one that is not depicted in other Taklung portraits.

The coiled panlong motif appears on princes' robes dating to the Tang dynasty (618-907), and was also used in the Song (960-1276), Xi Xia (1038-1227), and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties. A Jin-dynasty embroidered silk panel with such a design is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1989.205; fig. A). The occurrence of this motif within a Taklung portrait reflects the thoroughfares of trade and gift-exchange, and the esteem associated with refined Chinese textiles among the Tibetan ruling class.

Imported luxury textiles are ubiquitous in Taklung portraits of the 13th century, with notable attention placed on the embroidered patterns of each leader's robes. Here, large continuously scrolling abstracted gold flower heads embellish Sangye Yarjon's meditation cloak. The treatment is redolent of Cizhou pottery, as seen, for example, on a 12th-13th-century earthenware pillow in the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2000.42; fig. B). The abbot's inner vest patterned with gold foliate roundels on a maroon ground also recalls the Metropolitan's Jin-dynasty textile, which presents similar spacing over a solid color.

This merging of worldly and spiritual status evokes an archetype of Buddhist kingship, the chakravartin ('universal monarch'), who is a protector and promulgator of Buddhism devoutly ruling the world. Claims to represent such divinely sanctioned rulers were popular among kings and emperors throughout Tibet, Central Asia, and China in centuries preceding the establishment of the Taklung order. Through this important painting's employment of religious and monarchic signifiers, we may infer the Taklung order is making a similar assertion about Sangye Yarjon.


A Taklung Portrait of Sangye Yarjon, Third Abbot of Taklung, c. 1236-1272
By Jane Casey

The painting presents the elegant figure of Sangye Yarjon, Third Abbot of Taklung monastery in Central Tibet. Among the finest examples of Taklung paintings of any period, it is one of about a dozen paintings that survive from his tenure as abbot (1236-1272). Nephew of the previous abbot, Sangye Yarjon came to Taklung for training in 1221 at the age of eighteen. He spent his first two years there in meditative retreat. Even in youth, his spiritual presence was notable, prompting the epithet by which he came to be known: Sangye Yarjon, "one progressing this year to buddhahood" (da lo sangs rgyas yar la byon).1 In 1236, when he was thirty-four, his uncle died and he became the incumbent abbot, responsible for the monastery of 5,000 monks.

The hierarch is seated on a lion throne, dressed in the robes of an ordained Tibetan monk. His head turns to the right shoulder, revealing a strong jawline. The face is idealized, with high cheek bones, aquiline nose, and wide eyes half-closed in contemplation. His right hand is held in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra), associated with the legendary moment the historical Buddha Shakyamuni called upon the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment. This gesture, as well as the golden wheels on his hands and feet, and his seat on the lion throne, indicate his community regarded him as an enlightened being, equal in spiritual stature to the historical Buddha. Surrounding the central figure are 108 other monks, mostly indistinguishable aside from their varied gestures. They are likely to be manifestations of the central figure, signifying his ability to appear everywhere at once. This iconography too may be adapted from a tradition that originally developed for the historical Buddha. The Buddha is said to have replicated himself so that his duplicate could preach in his place when he was away. This miraculous power, exhibited by the historical Buddha at Shravasti, was sometimes described as an attribute of Taklung abbots.2 After Sangye Yarjon's death, disciples reported hearing him state: "I am present everywhere."3

Above the central figure is a lineage of nine teachers, his immediate predecessors in the Taklung spiritual lineage. Beginning with celestial Buddha Vajradhara, the lineage includes the acclaimed Indian yogin Tilopa (fl. late 10th to early 11th century), his disciple Naropa (c. 956-c. 1040), his Tibetan disciple Marpa (1012-1096), and so on, including Milarepa, Gampopa, Phagmodrupa, the First Taklung Abbot Tashipel (1142-1210), and Second Taklung Abbot Kuyalwa (1190-1210). A lineage (or lineages) of teachers appears in the top, side, and, occasionally, the bottom registers of most Tibetan paintings. Essentially, they represent the celestial and historical figures who transmitted specific Buddhist teachings from one generation of practitioners to the next. The ancient tradition of paraṃparā, an unbroken lineage of spiritual teachers and disciples, was widespread in India. It continued into Tibetan Buddhist communities during the 12th and early 13th centuries. Taklung was one of many small Buddhist communities in Tibet at this time, each led by a charismatic leader. The early abbots established monasteries and harnessed resources to create and sustain their monastic communities. They adjudicated local disputes, dispensed food and material resources to the needy, and brokered power among the landed gentry. Above all, they mastered the practices necessary to achieve spiritual realization. Critically, they trained their disciples in the teachings and meditative techniques they inherited from their own teachers. Such transmissions are commemorated visually, for instance, in a Taklung double-portrait thangka featuring two successive masters, Phagmodrupa and Tashipel (fig.1), in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Spiritual attainment, above all, was the focus of Sangye Yarjon. As he said to his nephew and eventual successor, Mangalaguru (fig. 2), soon after the latter's arrival at Taklung Monastery in c. 1255, "...you, my nephew, should take barley to the value of five zho from my household, and starting from tomorrow, you should stay in retreat. The study that you have already undertaken in Kham is sufficient. This lineage of ours is a lineage of spiritual attainment. So spiritual attainment is very important. It was dependent on their perfection of spiritual attainment that the teachers who were our predecessors acted for the benefit of themselves and others. You should be diligent in your spiritual attainment!"4

Like other abbots of his day, Sangye Yarjon was also a deft politician. In 1240, the Mongols under Godan Khan invaded Central Tibet. They burned Reting Monastery, killed hundreds of monks and civilians, and looted villages.5 "On one occasion when the large army of Hor Dumur arrived in Tibet, he [Sangye Yarjon] sent his venerable uncle (zhang btsun) bearing gifts to the place where the Hor [were encamped]. By resorting exclusively to prayer, Dumur's inimical thoughts were calmed and he became a disciple."6 When the Mongols sought recommendations for Tibetan leaders with whom they could negotiate, the Taklung abbot (Sangye Yarjon), the Drigung abbot, and the Sakya abbots were named. Specifically, the Taklung abbot was described as the most sociable, Drigung the most affluent, and Sakya the most religious.7 Sakya Pandita was the chosen emissary and in 1244 he set out from Sakya for Godan Khan's encampment in the Kokonor. This began the powerful Yuan-Sakya alliance that would dominate Tibetan politics for the next century.

Like the majority of the surviving paintings from Taklung monastery, this work bears inscriptions of historical interest. That on the front, centered just beneath Sangye Yarjon's throne, is written in elegant gold printed script. It states, "[This] is the thugs dam 'the meditative commitment' or 'high aspiration' of the Honorable Onpo Lama Rinpoche."8 Five other Taklung paintings bear the same inscription, also placed beneath the central figure's throne.9 The inscription expresses the profound connection between Sangye On (1251–1296), the immediate successor of Sangye Yarjon, with his teacher (and uncle), the central figure of this painting. It is likely that Sangye On used the painting in his personal meditation practice.

Verso inscriptions are in black cursive script, written within the shape of a stupa. A similar arrangement can be found on the back of another Taklung painting in the Rubin Museum of Art, New York (fig. 3a & b). In the present painting, these inscriptions include consecration mantras and an invocation of the presence of the Third Abbot Sangye Yarjon, thereby identifying him to be the central figure of the painting.10 Twenty-three Taklung paintings invoke the name of their central figures in verso inscriptions. Also on the verso is a personalized prayer not to be separated from the teacher, citing Sangye On (Kirtiśrī Rashmibhadra, his initiation name) and his teacher Sangye Yarjon (as Prajñāguru), just below the black dbu med inscription, written in gold handwritten script. "May I, Kirtiśrī Rashmibhadra, being inseparable from the incomparable holy lama Prajñāguru, achieve whatever he commands, and may I have the power to purify the bewilderment of my own mind and act as a guide for living beings."11 The presence of this and the other gold inscription composed by Sangye On—indicating the painting contains or was his thugs dam—were added to an earlier painting that Sangye On probably inherited from his teacher.

For the figures listed in this essay, please refer to our printed or digital limited edition catalogue.

Endnotes

[1] The Taklung History, 271, Gyurme Dorje trans. Stag-lung Ngag-dbang-rnam-rgyal, Stag lung chos 'byung (Taklung Dharma History), formally Brgyud-pa Yid-bzhin Nor-bu'i Rtogs-pa Brjod-pa Ngo-mtshar Rgya-mtsho (Wondrous Ocean of Eloquence: Histories of the Taklung Kagyu Tradition), trans. Gyurme Dorje, (Lhasa: Bod-ljongs Bod-yig Dpe-rnying Dpe-skrun-khang [Tibetan Ancient Books Publishing House], December 1992).
[2] Taklung History passim, e.g., 253-254.
[3] Taklung History, 288, Gyurme Dorje trans.
[4] Taklung History, 305, Gyurme Dorje trans.; see also The Lhorong History, Tatsak Tsewang Gyal (rta tshag tshe dbang rgyal), Lho-rong Chos-'byung (The Lhorong History), (Lhasa: Bod-ljongs Bod-yig Dpe-rnying Dpe-skrun-khang, 1994), 546-547; and George N. Roerich, trans. and ed., The Blue Annals, from Go Lotsawa, deb ther sngon po (Calcutta, 1949-53; rev. Delhi, 1976, R 1979, 1988), 630.
[5] Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967 (New York: Potala Publications, 1984, reprint), 61.
[6] Taklung History, 276, Gyurme Dorje trans.
[7] Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History, 61.
[8] bla ma rin po che dpon po dpal gyi thugs dam lags//
[9] Two are published: a Vajravarahi mandala in a private collection, published in Steven Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), no. 20; and a portrait of Second Abbot Kuyalwa in the Bordier Collection, published in Gilles Béguin, Art sacré du Tibet: Collection Alain Bordier, Éditions Findakly, 2013: 89-90, cat. no. 29.
[10] ōṃ a na mo rad na ghu ru prad jña ghu ru hūṃ/ Prajñaguru is the name by which this abbot was invoked in the Taklung inscriptions. See Jane Casey, Taklung Painting: A Study in Chronology (Serindia Publications, forthcoming).
[11] mtshungs med bla ma dam pa pradznya 'ghu ru dang// bdag 'ghir ti shri ra smri bha tra 'bral med ci gsung bka' bsgrub cing/ rangs sems 'khrul pa dag pa dang// 'gro 'ba'i 'dren pa nus par shog//


Mimi Lipton: A Collector of Treasures

It is unusual to find a collector equally passionate about contemporary and traditional art. Particularly within South Asian and Himalayan art, whereby styles are so much their own, it is hard for some to imagine appreciating them outside their original context. For Mimi Lipton, the pull to travel was a vortex inspiring decades of collecting and art dealing in categories from far-flung corners of the world, at a time when they were relatively unacknowledged.

Mimi Lipton spent much of her childhood moving from one culture to another. Born in Vienna in 1928, and raised as a youth in Belgium, her family was forced to flee to England with the onset of the Second World War. In 1950, she moved to London to take a job working as the Assistant Curator to Jasia Reichardt at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Working on the ground-breaking exhibition 'Cybernetic Serendipity' (1968), she met her husband Hansjorg Mayer, a renowned German art publisher. Fully engaged in the contemporary art scene, they shared friendships with many of the great artists of the time including Dieter Roth, Mark Boyle, Tom Phillips, Peter Blake, and Richard Hamilton, much of whose work is still in her collection.

Mimi and Hansjorg travelled extensively together, inspiring her passion for collecting pieces evocative of place. Traversing Africa and Asia, she began buying furniture from Thailand, jewelry from Morocco, lacquerware from Burma, and silver from India. Mimi took particular interest though in Tibet, and in 1988 produced an exhibition titled 'The Tiger Rugs of Tibet' at the Hayward Gallery in London, setting the stage for collecting interests of a category well outside of what was known or valued. In 1996, her collection of Himalayan jewelery featured prominently in an exhibition titled 'Gold Jewelery from Tibet and Nepal, at SOAS, London, with the accompanying catalogue written by Jane Casey. Her own appreciation for the articulated patterns, geometric arrangements, and calligraphic lines inherent in Tibetan textiles and paintings, are of course an expression of her own artistic sensibilities, but more importantly, a testament to her ability to bring to light the rich and hidden treasures of the world.

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