Presentation of the Book
By Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
At the Ateneo Veneto in Venice April 16, 2015
Speakers Ester Bianchi and Fabian Sanders
“The Temple of the Great Contemplation. The Gönpa of Merigar “.
The book cover, projected on the screen in the middle of the dark wall, stands out with its bright colors and the golden letters of the title in subtle relief. Around it are the thirteen paintings depicting the Cycle of Purgatory, done on canvas by Jacopo Palma the Younger in 1600.
We are in the former church of the School of San Fantin, today Lecture Hall of the prestigious Ateneo Veneto in Venice. The School consisted of two fraternities in the mid-1400s that had primarily charitable purposes but also the sad duty of accompanying those sentenced to death, from where came its most common name as the School of the “hanged” or “the good death.”
In this profound historic atmosphere, Fabian Sanders, professor of Tibetan language and culture at the University of Venice and teacher of Tibetan language courses at the Shang Shung Institute, and Ester Bianchi, a Sinologist specialized in the philosophy of Eastern religions and professor at the University of Perugia, are preparing to present the wonderful book dedicated to the Merigar Gönpa.
A “beautiful, deep and precious” work. Ester begins with these words and devotes her presentation to various aspects of the work, including, in particular, its importance for scholars but also for those who are interested in the more modern phenomenon of the spread of Oriental religions, and specifically of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.
“Chögyal Namkhai Norbu,” says Ester Bianchi, “is known not only among practitioners and devotees of Buddhism but also among academics, among intellectuals and sympathizers of Eastern religions. He is a spiritual teacher who has founded one of the most active and widespread Tibetan practice Communities; whoever is involved in the study of the phenomenon of the spread of Eastern religions in the West cannot ignore him.
These two aspects, one more erudite or even academic, and the other distinctly religious, are not at all in contrast. Rather they fall perfectly into a traditional perspective that combines a knowledgeable approach with an experiential one of the practice. It is at the very moment of its foundation that we understand how this practice center, unlike other similar ones in the West, remains as close as possible to the dictates of tradition, but of course, adapting to the needs of the contingent reality in which it exists and operates “.
The choice of the place, “… it is situated on a rise circled by hills that form a crown around it” (page 19), as stated in the text, its consecration, “which took place in ‘89 with a ceremony that culminated in the burying of a vase full of valuable substances such as minerals, seeds and herbs, in order to protect the environment and bringing about favorable conditions and circumstances”: all of this took place according to the dictates of tradition. As Ester emphasizes, “The fact that in this case you were on Amiata and not in Tibet seems a factor of secondary importance.”
She continues: “We find that the construction and subsequent decoration of the temple were carried out under strict and precise iconometric rules and according to traditional iconography.
This is definitely not a mere esthetic issue; only if these images are created in this way will they lend themselves to host the gods, who, in fact are invited to reside in them and only at that point, when this occurs as a result of specific rituals of consecration, will those images have some value to the Buddhist, for the practitioner, for the devotee, regardless of the beauty or non-beauty of the images themselves.”
The overview on the content of the volume by Professor Bianchi then briefly touches on the pictorial art of Tibet, the lineage and the specific work of the editors up to the collection of the biographies of 146 Masters painted in the frieze that runs along the inside perimeter of the Temple above the windows.
The second part of the book is dedicated to the biographies for which Fabian Sanders and Jacobella Gaetani worked months and months translating various texts in order to concisely describe the life of each Master portrayed.
Fabian explains how the biography in the Tibetan world does not serve to pass on or to describe, as a kind of record, the deeds of a person. The secondary aspects of life are rather neglected, trying to produce a kind of example, an archetype of how a being who was originally suffering and ignorant like everyone else, has found the way to liberation. And in a witty way he is keen to stress that “this is by no means a simple process, it is far from true, as often seems to be inferred from the way Buddhism is described, that there was a life like in a health club, a life of psychological well-being, as they say now; the lives of the Masters can be permeated with suffering that is often atrocious, complicated experiences, problems, deaths, separations, within which these Masters have always been able to find the strength to rise, to distance themselves and look to worldly vicissitudes with a more detached view, less immersed in this murky ocean of Samsara.”
Using as support some beautiful illustrations from the book projected on the screen, Fabian explains the layout of the Gönpa, the diagrams and symbols of the details on the roof and the decorations on the columns and ribs that support the roof, that represent the unraveling of the multiplicity of phenomena in all its enormous complication. “The roof is designed in a circular way moving clockwise in a script that is called Phagpa and was designed by Chögyal Phagpa, a great master of the Sakya School in the 13th century. The edges of the letters, in blue, are to be understood as transparent and let us see the sky in the background from which they arise.”
The information is taken from Rinpoche’s manuscript, translated in the first part of the book in collaboration with Jacobella Gaetani, which describes everything you need to know about the decorations of the Temple. Fabian explains: “Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu used, knowing and mastering it perfectly, the science of art to conceive this Gönpa – Gönpa in Tibetan means solitary place, a place of hermitage where one can withdraw from the world to practice a spiritual path – to build and decorate this Temple that is a true and proper explanation, an illustration for images, or architectural images, of the Dzogchen teaching of which it is the depositary”. He then clarifies the views of Tibetan art, “It is not so important to repeat the forms that have had a historical tradition over the centuries, but it is important to try to express as much as possible the ultimate sense of the teaching and its usefulness to every being in the clearest, most eloquent and understandable way to the specific observer of the artwork.”
“Tibetan Buddhism” – continues Fabian – “considers that there is the possibility of planting causes in the continuum of beings … they are like seeds that will bring the fruit of liberation one day. These seeds can be planted in beings that come in contact, through one of the five senses, with ‘things’ designed specifically to facilitate the achievement of the fruit.”
The power of the paintings of the Masters, is still repeated, it is immense, as is the immense size of the entire Gönpa, which Rinpoche in his infinite generosity and wisdom gave us all that we can understand better thanks to this “beautiful, deep and precious” text.