Redecorating the Temple of the Great Contemplation

At Merigar West

An Interview with Migmar Tsering at the Merigar Gönpa

On June 15th, 2023, the renovation works of the external paintings of the Merigar West Gönpa began. The original paintings had partly been ruined by time and the elements, and partly as a result of the expansion works of the Gönpa in 2001. The external paintings were finally removed during the extraordinary maintenance works in 2019-2020.

Migmar painting the Longsal symbol.

The Mirror: The artists from the Dynamic Space of the Elements team together with an international groups of painters have been doing an enormous and wonderful job throughout the summer on the decoration of the outside of the Temple of the Great Contemplation at Merigar. Could you tell us about how this work started? How did you create the base for the decorations and which kind of materials are you using?

Migmar: First of all we spent six or seven months investigating the type of paint that would work best for this work, considering that the painting is external and subject to quite extreme elements all year round. We did a lot of analyses to see which type of colors would work well in this situation and finally found colors in a type of enamel that are perfect for external painting. 

The work began by taking off all the old paint and cleaning all the surfaces of the pillars and beams in order to get to the original wood. This was essential to do because without removing all the old paint and plaster, the new decorations would not be able to adhere well to the wood. Preparing all the external surfaces around the Gönpa took three people about thirty days to do. The work involved removing all the old plaster and paint, a bit at a time, then filling in all the holes and gaps in the wood. For this we made use of a type of traditional plaster that is used in Tibet consisting of sawdust mixed with glue. Using this, we filled the holes and gaps in the wood as much as possible, then the surfaces were cleaned.

We asked some experts whether we should apply a primer coat of paint but they suggested not to because the paint would not be able to penetrate the wood. And this is the way we went ahead with this work. The paint wasn’t easy to work with because we needed to apply several different coats of each color but in this way the colors will not fade easily.

The Mirror: When the decorations are complete, will you add a final coat to protect them from the extreme weather conditions at Merigar?

Migmar: The colors that we are using don’t need any kind of refinishing to protect them. They have been produced with that kind of protection themselves. However, this aspect of protection has meant we have had to work harder creating the decorations with many different coats of paint. 

The Mirror: I understand that you have worked according to Rinpoche’s instructions in the book about the Merigar Gönpa, following his designs of sacred letters and mantras. However, I noticed that you have added some new decorative letters and designs. Can you tell us something about them?

Migmar: Because the enlarged Gönpa has more surface space outside, we were able to enlarge or extend some of the decorations and also make them more detailed. The mantras are the same but the decorative parts are more detailed and larger. Over one of the entrances we have embellished and enlarged some of the designs and added tigles containing the Tibetan letter A.

In Rinpoche’s original design in the book ‘The Temple of the Great Contemplation’ among other things there is the Longsal symbol. What we have added is to put the complete Longsal symbol alternating with the Tibetan letter A (which includes the single Longsal symbol) along the rim of the crossbeams outside the Gönpa. If you look at the Tibetan letter A carefully, it also contains part of the single Longsal symbol. All the letters are inside tigles. Apart from that we followed all the indications that Rinpoche gave in his book.

I would like to add that over the main entrance to the Gönpa, behind one of the main crossbeams, there is a fairly large empty space under the area we are decorating. We are planning on filling it with books and videos of Rinpoche’s Longsal teachings so that those who pass beneath it will receive the benefit of those teachings. It didn’t make much sense to leave the space empty so it will be filled with books that practitioners have brought here to the Gar. It will be similar to filling the space inside a Stupa. There will also be part of the Tengyur and Kangyur as well as symbols of the five elements

The Mirror: I noticed that you have used a different and impressive technique to paint new protective symbols from Tibetan astrology and the Kalachakra tantra. They are raised and are really striking. How did you get this effect?

Migmar: If you simply paint a letter in gold, it will be flat. If you want the letters to have more effect, you need to raise them. It is a technique that we use in Tibet when we write mantras or when we are drawing using gold, using glue mixed with plaster. We used that raised technique in the drawing of the twelve astrological animals on the north side of the Gönpa in order to make the gold stand out more. In Tibetan that technique is called ‘kyu bur’ (dkyus ‘bur); ‘bur’ means raised, ‘kyu’ means design. 

The Mirror: During your work here at the Gönpa, there has been an opportunity to check the conditions of the wooden beams and pillars of the building in order to identify any weak points that need to be cared for in the future. Just moving around the Gönpa outside, we have noticed a few points where there is damage. What are future plans to care for some of the beams that are not in good condition?

Migmar: We noticed that some of the pillars inside have some rot due to the rain coming in. We have completely repaired them. We had to cut out the parts that were rotten, clean the space and insert another piece of wood. The external parts of the Gönpa were also missing some glass panels which we inserted in order to keep out the rain. So up to now we have worked on repairing and renewing all the pillars outside the Gönpa. 

The Merigar Gakyil has a project that is planned for this autumn to renew the wood flooring of the Gönpa. Once we start on that we will have the possibility to check the wooden beams inside the building and repair them if necessary. We have already found some of the inner beams to be in poor condition but we will not be able to see the extent of the damage until we remove the floor inside the building. In September we will start this project for the floor in which we will remove the outer circle of flooring, redo it and then refinish the surface of the entire floor. 

I’d also like to mention that next summer Dynamic Space of the Elements will be helping the Merigar Gakyil with a project inside the Gönpa to renew the decoration on the outer ring of the ceiling, which is from the time of the enlargement of the Gönpa. Previously it was external to the original building of the Gönpa, but when the building was enlarged, it became an outer ring within the building. We plan to repair and redecorate the ceiling of this outer ring. The Merigar Gakyil also has a project to renew the illumination next year. 

The Mirror: All the beautiful decorative work has been done thanks to your painting skills and experience and that of your team of trained painters. The core of the painting team comes from the Dynamic Space of the Elements. Can you tell us a little about your team and the international collaboration?

Migmar: When Dynamic Space of the Elements was created, it was not just our idea but also Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s as a way to involve the participation of young people particularly in cultural projects. Some of the projects of Dynamic Space concern art and in fact we have a lot of students from art schools who participate in activities to illustrate books and participate in art exhibitions and projects such as the paintings here at the Gönpa. These young people not only work here on projects but also follow Community life at Merigar, participating in practices and retreats and integrating with the Community. 

All the work on decorating the Gönpa has been in karma yoga and we have been working for the last two months. The cost of the materials has been covered by Merigar but food and accommodation for the painters has been the responsibility of Dynamic Space which has its own premises close to Merigar.

A group of students from the Academies of Arts in Rome were the core of the painters; they were joined by an international group of painters and included Zhang Su, Gonpo, Xin Yi, Zhang Yue, Lu Yushan, Andy, Mei Mei, Zhenya, Sonam Ottaviani, Vitaly, Kriss, Mohan, Yangcen, Sangye, Anna Tomi, Sebastien, Rowan, Kamil, Magda, Emanuela, Kunga, Chen Ling, Anna, Tomi and Elena. This extraordinary team went to the Gönpa early every morning and devoted themselves to all aspects of this delicate work: drawing the outlines of the decorations, preparing the colors and applying the paint and the gold.

The Mirror: On behalf of all those who come to visit the Gönpa at Merigar, I would like to thank you and your team for doing such a wonderful and precise job. The Gönpa is not only a beautiful place visually but is also the place where Rinpoche gave teachings for so many years and is an inspiration and blessing for everyone who visits here.

August 6, 2023

On Thursday August 10, when the work was finished at the Gönpa, the mayor of Arcidosso and the public were invited to see the finished decorations. There was an informal ceremony in which the mayor presented individual certificates of participation to the members of the Dynamics team and then there was a social moment with wine and snacks, followed by dinner and a celebration at the Yellow House. Photo by Gabriele Siedlecki.

Migmar Tsering was born and raised in Lhasa, Tibet. From 1987 he studied with the master Chönyi Rinpoche at his monastery for more than six years, where he learned traditional Tibetan art, astrology and sa-che (Tibetan geomancy). Migmar has participated in decorating some of the main Tibetan temples such as Samye and Jokhang. He has been resident at Merigar for many years.

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