Brushes with the divine

East meets east over the Himalayas

By Alexander Mackay-Smith IV

July 18, 2001

Pema 03 6.50.14 PM.JPG

Karma works in mysterious ways.

What karma dictated that Pema Rinzin and Yumyo Miyasaka should meet? They were born thousands of kilometers apart, one a Tibetan exile in India, one in peaceful Okaya, Nagano Prefecture. Yet for the last five years they have labored side by side on a

great project to provide Tibetan-style thangka Buddhist paintings for Shokoji, a large Shingon temple in Okaya. The journey to (or back to) Okaya has taken them both around the world.

To some extent the connection is clear. The Miyasaka family have followed Shingon Buddhism in Japan for more than 600 years, producing many distinguished monks and scholars. Yumyo’s father Yusho is a leader of the Shingon sect and Japan’s foremost authority on esoteric Buddhism (Japanese mikkyo); his elder brother Yukyo is the resident abbot of Shokoji and his younger brother is also a monk. Japanese Shingon Buddhism has long had close ties with Tibetan Buddhism, the special home of esoteric practice.

Yumyo himself, however, became an artist. He attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Tokyo Geidai), where he majored in Western-style oil painting. “From Renaissance and Baroque and Rococo to Impressionism and Fauvism,” Miyasaka says, “I wanted to study them all.” Then, while working on his master’s degree in 1978, he visited Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom between India and Tibet. There he saw works by the great contemporary Tibetan artist Kalsang Lodroe Oshoe.

“The Buddhist paintings spoke to me,” Miyasaka says. “They called me back to my Buddhist roots.”

Having earned his M.A., he found himself in a spiritual crisis. He diverged from painting for a while, studying and receiving certificates in acupuncture, shiatsu and related arts, and working in publishing.

Meanwhile he pursued his own study of esoteric and Tibetan Buddhist doctrines and art. The resolve grew in him to seek knowledge at the source. In 1988 he went to Dharamsala (with a stop for three months in Nepal, while he waited for his student visa to come through from India). In the capital of the Tibetan exile community, he studied Tibetan (“I had a good command of the grammar,” he says, “but I had to learn to speak it”) and became Kalsang’s student.

Pema Rinzin is not sure exactly when he was born, but he thinks it was about 1966. His mother was in exile from the Chinese invasion of their country, a struggle in which Pema’s father lost his life. From about the age of 2 Pema was brought up in a children’s facility in Dharamsala; he did not meet his mother again until he was 24. From the age of 13 Pema studied Tibetan painting, receiving a diploma in the art at 18 and becoming the art teacher at the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala. He married the younger sister of Kalsang, but, tragically, she died young, leaving him with three children.

In the late ’80s he traveled in Europe and the United States, lecturing at universities. At one point he served as an interpreter for a group of Tibetan monks’ touring with the Grateful Dead, an experience he remembers for its slightly mixed messages. On the one hand, Jerry Garcia’s sincere interest in Buddhism had inspired him to include the monks’ chants in the group’s act and contribute some of the profits to the Tibetan cause. Still, there were some differences in lifestyle . . .

“The monks didn’t drink or smoke,” he says, “so they rode on a separate bus. I wasn’t a monk, though, so I had no problems about riding with the band!”

When he returned to Dharamsala he found a Japanese monk diligently studying with his old master Kalsang.

“The sight of this foreigner so earnestly working at thangka painting made a deep impression on me,” Pema says. “I decided to quit teaching and paint full-time.” He and Miyasaka became fast friends.

At this time Kalsang was engaged in major projects for the Dalai Lama, painting frescos at the Kalachakra Assembly Hall and in the Dalai Lama’s residence. Under his direction Miyasaka and Pema took part in the work. Miyasaka also worked on wall paintings for a large Tibetan temple in Darjeeling. Pema exhibited his work in Wurzburg, Germany, and worked on commissions in Europe, where Buddhism has a growing following.

From his first meeting with Kalsang, Miyasaka had nurtured the dream of bringing the great master to Japan. In 1994 an opportunity arose when Miyasaka’s elder brother Yukyo succeeded to the abbacy of Shokoji, which their father had once headed. To celebrate the occasion it was decided to commission a set of paintings for the temple’s large meeting hall, the Komyokaku.

The preparations took a while, but in July 1996 Miyasaka returned to Okaya with his master Kalsang and fellow student Pema. For three months they prepared canvases and paints. In the fall the three began work on the first stage of the project, a set of Eight Great Bodhisattvas. “I originally thought it would take about 21/2 years,” Miyasaka says, “but it’s run on. We’ll be finished with the main paintings next year. After that there will be the ceiling panels to do.”

The ceiling panels will feature the 84 saints (gyoja) of esoteric Buddhism. Those who wish to get a preview can buy the book Miyasaka and Pema have produced, “Hachijuyonin no Mikkyo Gyoja” (available from Shunjusha), with their own illustrations, following the strict Tibetan iconography, to accompany hagiographies of the 84 adepts.

Pressed by other commitments elsewhere, Kalsang moved on in 1997, having set Miyasaka and Pema on course for the project. The Eight Great Bodhisattvas were completed first, and an “eye- opening” (dedication) ceremony was held in February ’98. Miyasaka hopes to hold the ceremony for the rest of the paintings next winter, when they will be installed in the meeting hall.

And after that, the ceiling panels.